“Do you think he’s dead?”
“No look—he’s breathing.”
“Not well. Besides, he’s pretty much frozen.”
“Okay, maybe he’s dying, but he’s not dead. Yet.”
He awoke to the sound of voices he couldn’t understand, and the scent of warm breath on his face. He was cold. That was annoying. Although he wasn’t sure what was more annoying—that, or the fact that he was both still alive and now just miserable.
He should go back to sleep.
Unfortunately, the voices were still there, and something poked his face. He growled. Who was dumb enough to disturb a dragon? Especially one like him. The fool was lucky that he wasn’t in the mood to drive them off by force—yet. He wasn’t in the mood to do anything but be undisturbed. He conveyed these feelings in his growl, but still, the presence hovered.
However, as she shifted, his fingers and forearm sunk into snow, and he realized that he was human. Odd. He could have sworn that he was a dragon when he was awake last. What had he been doing? No, it didn’t matter.
His company said something else. They should leave. He growled again, stronger now as he felt it catch in a part of his chest that he doubted a human should have.
They jumped back, but he still heard the hushed chattering. They didn’t fucking leave.
Irritated, he finally gave up and pried his eyes open, though the action was hard. Had they been frozen shut? That was annoying. They were dried out, too, because of it, and that was troublesome in this weather. Not that it mattered. It was just a little pain and discomfort. (Or injured eyes, his mind supplied, unwarranted.)
Everything was blurry and white. His sense of taste was just as shot, and his nose didn’t work the way it was supposed to. His skin was numb. (Was it because of the cold? Or because it was skin and not scales?) The only thing that seemed to be working properly was his hearing, which meant little when he had no idea what language his unwanted company was speaking. Damn. He was useless in such a state.
Then again, was that a problem? What could he do even if he functioned properly? If the beings hovering over him intended him harm, then they should hurry up and try. They earned it, finding him in such a pitiful state; this would be their best chance to rid the world of him.
They poked him again. He could feel that much, at least. One of the voices said something else, presumably to him, but he understood none of it.
“Oh! Do you speak Ishgaran?”
Wait, he understood that. Mostly. It took his brain a moment to process what the person—a girl?—had asked. Ishgaran… Right. The language deemed to be the best language for a common tongue some time ago, mostly used by travelers and traders, spoken widely in the west…learned as a second language. He did know it. He was taught it, wasn’t he? By…her? He recalled her face but not her name. Ha. He didn’t deserve to know her name now anyway; he was no longer anything close to a doctor.
“Y ̵̽ ́ ̢̡̛͎̬͖̏̎͂̽̓̿ e ̸̅̄͒̕ ̃ ̾͘ ̃ ̍̈́͌̌̚ ̃ ̹͎͎̼͈̅͝ s ̶ ̃ ̢̺͙̦̜̤̝͎̱͓͙̖͚̰͌͜ .”
He wasn’t sure why he bothered, but he responded. They didn’t seem to be capable of leaving him alone, and he wasn’t keen on fighting them. (He shouldn’t fight anything, anymore.) Perhaps he could make them leave without violence—and wasn’t that a bizarre thought.
When there was no response other than some mumbling in that other language, he realized he probably hadn’t responded how he intended. He worked his tongue inside his mouth, trying to refamiliarize himself with how it worked. It just felt wrong.
He also tried to get his eyes working again, lifting himself up enough to see the snow, blinking repeatedly and watching it until it no longer moved in shifting grays. In that process, he managed to sit up. “…Yes,” he tried again, and this time, he was sure he did it right. He mostly only spoke Ishgaran before… Before what happened. It was easier than it had been the first time he tried, for some reason.
“Great!” It was the feminine voice again. There were two voices—a lighter pitched, excited one, and a lower, nervous one. “Are you okay? How did you get here? What are you? Got a name?”
“Astrid… S-slow down.”
The two voices conferred in that different language again, in hushed tones. He tried to open his eyes again, but the brightness of the snow was blinding. Whatever. He didn’t know why he bothered with the strangers anyway.
He was going back to sleep.
He woke up to the most putrid scent possibly contrived. It lodged itself in his throat, and he growled and gagged around it. The unwanted stimulus had jerked him into a sitting position, and after a few beats of his too-fast heart, his blurry eyes sharpened and focused.
He was no longer in the snow. Instead, he was inside of a tent, dimly lit by candles that should not have provided the warmth they did. He was sitting on a cot of some sort, and when he looked to the space immediately beside him, there was an old woman. She stood, still below his eye-level despite him not being at full height, and she wielded a gnarled wooden cane that she used to prod him in the chest.
“That got your heart working, eh?” she laughed.
He could still only stare, his own elevated heartrate in his ears and the awful taste smelling salts stuck in his throat and nose. He could not smell anything past it, but he didn’t need scent to surmise that the old woman was a full-blooded demon. Her leathery skin was some shade of purple and her eyes were tinted yellow. A single horn emerged from her forehead, tinged with magic, and he could hear wings rustle amidst her white robes.
He hadn’t seen a demon in years. The war (a sharp pang pierced his head) had driven most underground, to the depths of the earth where neither human nor dragon could reach. Some tried to stay, of course; he never had paid attention to what had happened to them. And then… And then recently… There had been demons everywhere. Waging war of their own. But they were massive and different—demons spawned of magic, and not blood.
From this one, however, he could sense the more natural and grounded magic of the abyss. The old woman shook with age, but her smile was steady.
“Can you understand me, dear?” she asked, in perfect Ishgaran. He vaguely recalled there having been people near him, but her voice was unfamiliar.
He had no idea where he was. He had no idea how he had gotten here. He barely knew what had happened the last time he had been conscious. Above all that, he didn’t know what the woman wanted from him.
He didn’t know why he was still alive. Why anybody would let him live.
The only thing he was certain of was that he was at this woman’s mercy. It took all of his strength just to sit up, and the magic he sensed from her was not born of ether.
The woman hummed, seeming pleased. He felt her magic poke at him—searching him. It didn’t hurt, but it was disconcerting, nonetheless. Numbly, he realized what she was doing: checking his vitals, while she either distracted him or prodded for lucidness. “Now, do you have a name, wanderer?”
“You there,” the guard addressed, scroll in hand. “You’ve come to see the Queen about the war, yes? Where do you hail from?”
He could still see the city burn under the might of dragons in his mind’s eye. His face twisted into a grimace. “Doesn’t matter. It’s destroyed.”
The guard softened some. “Yeah, heard that one before. Your name, then.”
He never had one. He never took one, because not even he wished to contract the ire of the gods, or risk damning some innocent fool along with him. But he was done caring about that. He knew who he wanted to drag down into hell with him.
He shivered, stomach churning from the memory. He had been such a damn fool.
“Don’t have one,” he answered quietly, throat hoarse. Stars, he probably hasn’t talked in decades. It felt wrong. Like everything else did.
She judged him for a moment, eye sharp and appraising. “Very well, wanderer.” She continued her check-up, frowning and muttering in that other language all the while. What did most demons speak? Belianese? He had learned some of it as an apprentice, a long time ago, but without much practice it never stuck—especially since it had been so long. It was a feat that he remembered any language at all.
She shouldn’t have bothered. He knew he was fucked up, and he should have stayed that way. They should have left him when they had the chance.
The woman swiftly took him by the wrist, swinging his arm outward. An involuntary growl settled in his throat, and his muscles tensed instinctively, but he already determined to be at the demon’s mercy. Though even if he was stupid enough to believe that he deserved to fight—which he didn’t, not after what he did—he doubted that he could do much. His body was strained, and the obscura in the atmosphere was too thick. Not thick enough that he was in the underworld, but he still strained to breathe.
“I would like to know what you are, however,” the woman continued. “Or else this is going to be very difficult for the both of us.”
What he was? He exhaled roughly through the nostrils. He was a dragon, but he wasn’t. He used to be human, but he wasn’t. A slayer, but he lost his mind.
He was just a monster. One who didn’t deserve medical attention.
“The kids who found you think you’re a half-walker,” she continued when he didn’t respond. “Well, Zoraster thinks you’re a human using magic, but I think we both know you’re in no shape for any of that.”
She held her fingers over his pulse while she used her other hand to grasp his elbow. The nerves felt different there, and he belatedly realized that even though he was smaller than he should have been—closer in form to what he was—he still had blue scales on his arm, underneath the mark. A jolt ran up his arm as she forcefully activated his magic, and he pulled his arm away with a small snarl. He barely trusted himself with his magic—lurking in his blood and in his skin—but he certainly didn’t trust anyone else with it.
“An arcane one, too—my, aren’t you a rare specimen?” she continued, unconcerned with his reaction. Instead, she held up a scale that she managed to pick off in the action and turned it around in her hand. “Though, half-walker or not, no reptile should be this far into the mountains. It’s not good for you. Neither is obscura for those of pure ether.”
Yeah, that was the fucking point.
The old woman didn’t sway underneath his glare. She just tutted like she was disappointed. (And she should be.)
“Those kids are too young, but I remember the dragons.” The tone was almost conversational, but he tensed under the weight of it all the same. “It was a terrible war. Our tribe was fortunate enough to stay out of it, but there were refugees, of course. Human, demon, half-walkers, speakers… Even a few dragon slayers, at one time, but they never stayed for long.”
She was testing him. He knew it, but he couldn’t manage to do anything in response. She couldn’t have known that all of that was his fault, or else he wouldn’t be in a med-tent. How could be possibly convey it? Words were hard to come by, and he doubted they would be enough. But he didn’t want to hurt anyone. Not anymore. He didn’t, but it was all he knew how to do.
He didn’t want to know either, about what happened during his mindless slaughter, but he needed to. He should know what he did. “What…” Stars, his throat was dry. “What happened to them?”
He killed so many. Dragons, dragon slayers… They all blended together. They were the same to him. So were demons and humans and anything that breathed. He tasted the memory of blood, and it burned his tongue. What did he think he was? A judge? A god? Executing penance for something as trivial as a few beings waging destruction? He was just a slave to bloodlust.
The elder frowned sympathetically. He winced under the gaze. “Some killed themselves before they turned. Some were hunted by dragons. Most were hunted by humans.”
He snapped his head towards her in surprise. Humans killed slayers too? And some had also… His mind trailed, trying to grasp at what he knew. His conscious memory of the last two hundred years was a wreck, mostly comprised of phantom sensations and an overwhelming memory of feeling the need to consume, but with prompting, he could remember some. There had been…blood, on the roads, sometimes. It drew him in because he yearned for dragon’s blood (he gagged on the memory), but it was already spilled. No dragons in sight. Just smaller forms.
Oh. Yes, he had killed countless slayers and dragons alike underneath his jaws, but not every death was by his hand. Yet it was. There had been a disconnect between the humans and the slayers the entire time, of course, but there had still been the pretense that they were still human—or whatever they once were—as well. A thin pretense, but it had been there all the same.
But he had been the first to turn. He gave them ample reason to fear. (And he had relished it.)
He felt dizzy, too tired and too empty to even be sick. He couldn’t even suffer properly.
“You’ve already changed, haven’t you?” the elder pressed, tone soft but eyes too sharp. She knew. “It’s been a long time since then, but you’re still here.”
How long had it even been? Surely longer than he would have lived as a human, if she was already wise to it. It felt like a long time too. Maybe his sense of time would be better if he wasn’t so tired. His brain was full of cotton, and he didn’t know whether to blame his crashing body, the cold, or the obscura that lingered thickly in the air, choking out the ether. Or maybe he had just lost his mind a long time ago, and there was no recovery to it. That would be fine, too.
“Is this the full extent of your change?”
She was using him for information, then. That made sense. Fine, if that was what she wanted.
His fingers flexed as he thought about vast oceans underneath him, the weight on his shoulder blades, the strength of his neck—the pressure of his jaws. It was all there, rumbling beneath the surface. He didn’t have the energy to pull it out, but he wouldn’t even if he did.
The elder hummed thoughtfully, questions still lingering in her expression. She pegged him as an anomaly, and she was correct, but likely in ways she was not currently imagining. She ceased her questions for the time being, however. The demon elder continued her inspection silently, while he fought to keep his frayed nerves in check. Eventually, somehow—she did something, he was sure of it—he fell back into a slumber.
When he woke up, he was still in the tent, but time had clearly passed. The air smelled different, even though the temperature hadn’t changed.
He felt a bit more…stable. Which was unfortunate, because it meant that he was all too aware, now, of the strain his body was under. He was completely drained and simply living was exhausting.
He was also starving. The cold had numbed it, but now that he wasn’t cold, he felt it full force. It heightened his sense of smell, and he was almost ready to search for another smelling salt to make it stop. He was alone in the tent, but he could smell demons further out, milling about the area lazily, and he could smell their warmth. Their flesh.
No. No, he couldn’t— He couldn’t keep doing this. Every time he cracked, body going into automatic, he regained his strength, but he lost time. Control. He couldn’t live knowing that he could snap and hurt anyone else, just for his own survival.
He just… shouldn’t live.
He pressed his claws into his biceps until all he could smell was his own blood, and then he gagged on the scent of it, so similar to dragons slain.
He was too weak to continue on for long, and soon, even that trivial pain knocked him out again.
He was likely on and off again for a few days. He wasn’t entirely aware of it or what he did. That worried him, but every time he woke up, the tent was in one piece and he was still there. No blood. No death. Just faint obscura magic, candles, and enough herbs hanging in the air to drown out everything else.
(That old hag was using calming herbs on him. Ha. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t working.)
Or, well, they worked to a certain point. The more he woke, blurry and disoriented though he was, the more his strength returned. The elder might have force-fed him broth at some point. He tasted it, but he didn’t remember it. (At least he didn’t taste blood. He hated not remembering after that happened.)
This time, he felt more lucid, the scents and sounds around him sharper. He was clearly in a village of some sort, with people milling about outside in patterned yet casual movements. He could feel his magic simmer beneath the surface, trying to take in the air, but it was still too weak to be a problem. His lungs felt better, and it was only then that he realized that they were messed up to begin with. He hadn’t cared about his physical state, but he took the opportunity to take stock of it now, just because his faculties were coming back.
He was still stuck in between forms, somewhat, but the scales and claws had receded to the point that only a few stray scales were left. It was bizarre. He had spent years as a dragon, and he knew that it was a true body, made of flesh and bone, and not a mere magic presentation. It was magic, in a way, because dragons were creatures of magic first and foremost, but not ethereal. It…didn’t make sense, that without even trying, he took the form of a human. He shouldn’t have the magic to shift into anything.
Though he had taken this form unconsciously several times, hadn’t he? Ever since he realized what he did. Ha. Not even his body wanted to be a dragon anymore. But he was. He knew it, and his instincts knew it as well. Nothing could change what he was and what he had done.
He needed to get out of here. The demons might think he was some poor beastman sap caught in the snow, but he wasn’t. (No, the elder knew, didn’t she? He could hardly recall whatever passed as a conversation, but the hag knew.) If his strength returned, and his true form with it, it would be bad. How, he wasn’t sure anymore, but it would be.
However, he made it halfway out of the cot—his dumb legs hardly strong enough when there were only two of them—when the demon elder appeared in the space before him, magic flashing around her, and she shoved him back into the bed.
“Where do you think you’re going, wanderer?” she questioned, clearly amused by his lack of strength.
He growled, but it was half-hearted. “Let me go.”
“Is that any way to speak to the being that nursed you back to life? I took a lot of time out of my scheduled duties, you know.”
Why she bothered, he didn’t know. But he suspected that the woman was important to whatever type of village this was, judging by her clothing, so she was deserving of respect. Even if he would have rather that she never dealt with his sorry ass at all. Stars, was ‘elder’ still the appropriate title for demon tribes? He had no idea. He couldn’t remember the proper translation for it, either. “…you have my gratitude, Elder…”
“My, so formal, all of a sudden. I was nearly convinced you forgot all language, at some points.” She smiled, but he felt patronized by it. “Now, would eat on your own, this time?”
The elder used magic to conjure a bowl of broth into her hand. He smelled the magic, first, and it made him nauseous, too twisted and turning for it taste real. Not that he had any business consuming any more magic than he already has. The combination of foul spatial magic and the thought of it ruined his appetite, nonetheless. “…not hungry.”
“Jorg,” she rebutted simply, much to his confusion, before frowning thoughtfully. “Ah, how to say in Ishgaran… Ah yes. Cowshit.”
Oh that made more sense.
“You nearly starved to death, and I’ve already spent enough effort to make sure you live.” She nearly shoved the bowl into his hands. “Eat.”
“I will move it inside of your body if you don’t.”
The threat worked. He had no desire to eat anything, knowing that it was the only thing keeping him in this cycle of living and consuming, but he desired to know what obscura-based spatial magic felt like inside of him even less. He shouldn’t piss off the elder anyway, after she went through all this effort.
“Very good. Now…” The elder folded her arms into her sleeves, appraising him once more. “I believe you are finally in a better place to answer questions, yes wanderer?”
Oh good. He could finally give them reason to let him leave. Maybe if he was lucky, they would just kill him. He grunted an affirmative.
“You were a dragon slayer, correct? From about two hundred and fifty years ago?”
Was that how long it has been? It seemed shorter than that. Stars, the amount of damage he must have done in over two centuries… He swallowed to keep the broth down. “Yes.”
“…yes.” Were demons and humans at war now? He wasn’t paying attention that deeply—he hadn’t cared much, before—but there was certainly conflict that wasn’t dragon-born. Ha. It would be hilarious if they killed him over that, and not because he was a freak of nature now.
But the elder just hummed thoughtfully. “My experience is limited with your kind, but I had been under the impression that your kind remained as dragons once the transformation was complete. Not stable ones, of course, but a type of dragon all the same. Yet you are an enigma. Do you know why?”
He shrugged. He really didn’t. He wasn’t aware that other dragon slayers had a problem with it. Well, if they survived him. He had been…indiscriminate.
“Have you been alone all this time?”
He nodded. That was an easy question.
“Were you aware that the northern Ishgaran mountains are a terrible place for dragons like you to reside?”
Was he? He hated the cold, because it numbed him to everything, but that was the point. If he froze solid, nobody would have to deal with him, and he wouldn’t have to think about it.
Whatever. This line of questioning was pointless. She assumed he was a victim of circumstance, and he really wasn’t.
“I was the one who killed the dragons,” he growled, voice catching on the words. He had said it before, but it felt awful now. It didn’t make it any less true. “I’m the black dragon that scorned the world—who slaughtered the innocent. I’m nothing but a death-bringer, so just let me go die in peace.”
She stared at him for a long time, face unreadable. He returned the gaze, daring her to do something. Either she let him leave, or she rallied the demons to kill him on the spot. Either were acceptable.
Except that wasn’t expected. He startled back in surprise, trying to gauge her emotion. Her heartrate had increased, but not enough to be fearful, and the scent of rage had not yet permeated the air.
“I finish what I start,” she said again, voice flat but confident. “So I will not let you die.”
She left in a puff of magic, leaving him alone once more.
He was too startled and confused to realize that he could have tried to leave again.
The cold kept dragging him back to sleep. It was annoying, and it always happened before he realized it. Everything worked in slow motion. Maybe the general exhaustion was at play too, but he blamed the cold first and foremost.
When he pried his eyes open to find a child staring at him, he blamed the cold on that, too, because surely, he was just hallucinating at this point.
“Dragon-man! You’re awake!”
What the fuck?
She wasn’t the tiniest child, but she certainly wasn’t fully grown. If he had to guess, she was a young teenager of some sort. Yellowish green hair, gray skin that worked like patchwork over tan… The scent was vague, still muddled to him by the surroundings, but judging based on what he observed, she was likely part demon and part human.
“Mimi said you needed to eat, because you were starving, but she also said you were being grumpy about it so I should watch you eat the whole thing,” the girl rambled, holding out a bowl of soup to him. Her voice sounded familiar, but the elder was the only one he remembered.
The girl was bouncing on her feet, waiting for him to take the bowl, but he was still trying to process what was happening. He told one of the village elders that he was the Black Dragon of the Apocalypse, and not only is he not immediately driven out or killed…she leaves him alone with a child.
What the fuck?
The air was still thick with the trails of spatial magic. Surely she was there, watching, just out of his reach. Right? It was the only thing that made sense. She was testing him. Why, and for what, he had no idea. Stars, he needed to leave already. He was the one starting to go crazy at this point.
“What’s it like being a dragon, anyway?” the girl continued, completely unaware of whatever crisis he was definitely in the middle of. “I’ve never seen one before, but Mimi has told stories. Oh! Can’t dragons, like, smell anything? Oh, oh! Guess what’s in the stew from here! I want to see a dragon nose in action!”
He stared at the child incredulously. Maybe the demons were smart and took the opportunity to fry his brain the rest of the way, and he was just going to experience a fever dream for the rest of his life, because he didn’t know what was happening, and there was no way it was real.
“Sorry, was I talking too fast? It’s been a while since I’ve spoken Ishgaran, but it was my first language, technically.” The girl tapped her chin with one hand, soup nearly spilling in the other. “Or am I speaking too well, and you don’t speak Ishgaran enough? I’ll slow down!” With a grin, she extended the soup to him again. “Soup tasty! You should eat.”
He could smell the soup. The hallucination-fever-dream was startlingly accurate, if that’s what this was.
The girl was going to stare at him, smiling like that, until he finished the soup. He was sure of it. He was still too confused and tired to be hungry, but slowly, the took the bowl from her hands.
Trying to eat with a twelve-year-old (or something) watching him like he was a puppy was by far one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of his life. He barely paid attention to what was actually in the soup, though he was fairly sure they slipped meat in it this time. Maybe there was poison in there too, and this was just an attempt to kill him without him noticing. In case he couldn’t stay sane enough not to fight back. That would make sense. Nothing tasted off though.
Stars, the kid was still staring.
“What?” he growled. His nerves were reaching a point of fraying, and he didn’t know how much longer he could take it.
“Sorry, sorry! I’ll let you sleep again!” she squeaked, taking the bowl and exiting with a quick bow.
He had to get out of here. He was losing his mind, and there wasn’t much left to lose.
His balance was wrecked. He realized this as soon as he managed to exit the cot only to have the world spin around him. The death grip on the wall was probably the only thing keeping him upright. But he had managed through worse and blocked out all manner of pain before, so he could probably make it back into the wilderness before his legs gave out.
“And where are you going?”
A startled sound, suspiciously like a yelp, escaped his throat as the elder appeared right behind him. She had the audacity to laugh, but then again, he probably deserved it.
“It’s not good for me to be here,” he replied, words coming a bit easier this time. “I’m dangerous.”
She laughed again. “So you say. Yet, you have not attempted to hurt a single one of my people. What do you say to that?”
“I’m weak right now. But something could always change.”
The elder pierced him with a knowing look, but he couldn’t even begin to guess what she saw, because she was incapable of appearing angry to his senses. “Dying animals are the most violent. You were just sad,” she said, exuding a confidence in her wisdom. She was right, too—objectively speaking. About the first part at least.
“Three more days.”
He blinked. “What?”
“Stay three more days, then I will let you leave. I finish what I start, and you will still die if you leave these grounds.”
His frustration returned. What did these people want from him? He had killed demons too. He knew he had. He was a threat to him just like he was a threat and a scourge to every damn thing alive. “But—”
“Don’t sass me, wanderer. If you are who you say you are, then humble yourself, because you are at my mercy. Beasts never want to die, but that is all you have tried to do. Dying is useless. You’re remorseful? Then don’t waste it.” Her yellowed gaze was intense, and even he froze underneath it. She was powerful, and she was proving it to him. “Three days. Then you get to decide again.”
She left again, teleporting away and leaving him speechless.
He didn’t try to leave again. He just replayed her words in his head over and over again.