Meeting the Dragon

November 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

The dragon’s lair yawned wide in the eastern face of the sheer mountainside, a stone-toothed mouth of the primal earth. A generous ledge jutted from the opening like a wide tongue, or maybe a long underbite — Yarim could not quite decide. Not that he’d ever waxed poetic on landscape before — but something about this deep cavern cast in thick shadows from the setting sun… well, it was striking.

Morning would bathe the ledge in golden light, glitter off the pyrite flecks in the rock, warm it to the heat favored by snakes and dragons. The sun would draw the dragon forth in a sleepy lumbering spill of scales and wingsails to soak in the light, blinking slowly at the layers of cream-bright walls protecting the city below.

But for now, in the growing shadows of evening, the great beast curled quiescent in his lair.

Thought of the many-walled city drew Yarim’s gaze back the way he’d come, back down the goat path that he’d not deign to call a road. His city gleamed, firelight and the more steady glow of magelight burning from windows, walltops, tower rooms. The city lay half-veiled in shadows from the northwestern mountains, half awash in red light where the sun’s dying rays streaked across the lower plains. To his other-sight, though, the entire city shone: layers of bright shields, spheres, doming over each circle of wall, and he knew–could feel, like a sloping in his skin, that they circled underneath the ground as well. Each tower burned in his subtle senses like miniature suns, runes and strong cords of combined will just discernible if he focused closely enough. Each temple was a spiderweb of many but lesser wills, tied to the direction of the priests, webs stretching over each district, strands connected to the hearts and minds of the faithful, anchored to order by their little beliefs.

Yarim drew in a deep breath of moisture-thick air and turned back to the dragon’s darkened cave. The path–if it could even be called that–ended at a small pool fed by a trickling fall of water. It was sheer cliffs from there to the ledge and cavern. No one would reach the dragon without wings or power. Wings he did not have, not truly–and excessive power was frowned upon, for it undermined the fabric of the realm, let the primal chaos eat it into formlessness.

But Yarim was of Gibnateb Tower, the Eight-Fold Stone. The towers defined the patterns of the city. His tower shone in the back of his awareness, a constant presence. He knew its strength, knew it to be the equal of the other four towers, the dominant force in the districts it shared with two temples. Khafad, the Influence of Gibnateb, meant to keep it that way — and Yarim did what the Influence willed. Yarim was to strengthen their position by a thousand subtle means. This dragon was one of those.

If it took a show of power and will to negotiate with the dragon–and indeed, power was often the only thing the great wyrms respected — then Yarim would use power.

He breathed deep, turning his focus inward to that tightly controlled core of self. So rarely did he release his own power — so rarely did he let his energy stretch beyond the strict confines he set upon it — so rarely did he let go that it took no small effort to do so. Yarim’s strengths tended towards subtlety and fine manipulation, not roaring force, not massive displays.

Yet this situation required it, and so . . . he breathed.

The first tendrils of aura, like fire reflecting off of burnished gold, curled at the edges of his body, flushing his olive skin darker still. A breeze rose up, blessedly cooling, chasing the humidity down the mountain. He breathed, and his aura brightened about him. It flickered to stronger life with each exhalation, like a kindled flame coaxed larger with bellows and breath. Something clicked between his conscious will and his inner center, then, and he gathered his focus tight — bowed his head, mahogany curls loosening from their ribbon ties — arms curving towards his back, like wings half-folded — and the breath whooshed from him in a single forceful exhalation.

His power flared, caught the last rays of daylight in its grasp and became a substitute sun for the twilight. Golden light-that-wasn’t-light surrounded him, stretching along his limbs, vague heron-necked bird-shape overlaying his human body. His fingers were both digits and pinions, his mouth both teeth and shining beak. He blazed the colors of sunlight and hearth fire, golden noon and dark red embers, his power visible even to physical eyes.

It took wings or power to reach the dragon’s lair. Yarim possessed both. He bent low, leapt into the rising night wind, and rose on wings of power in a slow burning spiral to the shrouded ledge above.

He alighted on the ledge with a backwash of light and wind, heavy with the aroma of cinnamon and myrrh. The power drew into his skin just a touch, and his feet flexed for balance as he refocused himself, breathed his aura out again. The practical use of transportation was unneeded now, but there were yet other uses…

A sharp exhalation flared brightness across the rocks, shone into the cavern, solar bright, fire warm. It brought a stirring and a rumbling from the depths of shadow. Yarim inhaled the musty scent of scales and shed skins that wafted out from the cave. The light of his power reflected hot and cold at once off of twin globes, red-gold, slitted — enormous eyes in the dark.

“Purity and truth to you and yours,” Yarim said, projecting from his gut so that his voice carried strong and firm. “I bring word from Kharib abd Gibnateb, Influence of the Eight-Fold Stone. He greets his cousin-on-the-mountain, keeper of the eastern cliffs.”

The great red-amber eyes blinked once, slow clouding from side to side of sliding membrane. There was no reply from within the cave.

Was it a waiting game? The Influence had given him only basic instruction in dealing with dragons. Yarim had to run on instinct and little information… and as knowledge truly was the greatest power, he was handicapped. So he did what instinct suggested. He followed the dragon’s example. He met the burning-ember eyes with his own mud-green gaze, and he held that fixed regard.

A low throaty rumble sounded within the cave, like the shifting of rock before an earthquake. He felt the sound touch the edge of his power, almost physical, almost solid. The great eyes seemed to grow larger. A trick of perception? Mind games? Yarim set his spirit’s anchor to earth and stars just in case, renewed his grasp on that central core within. His power flared hotter in response, pushing back at the otherworldly touch of grinding stone.

Something flickered in the seemingly disembodied eyes, hard to read in such an alien gaze — surprise? Startlement? Displeasure? The narrow pupils constricted. Now the dragon’s questing energy flicked around Yarim’s aura like a scenting snake-tongue, like desert wind. Tasting, testing.

Yarim stood his ground, met the dragon’s stare, and waited.

It felt like half an age, or an eternal moment. In time, with a sigh that smelled of volcanic ash and dank earth, the dragon stepped forward. Its claws clicked on the stone with a sound reminiscent of a blacksmith’s hammer on steel. Something rasped in the background between clicks — scales on rock? Yarim lost sight of the eyes, and when the dragon stepped into the strange glow cast by his aura, he realized why: the great wyrm had raised its head too high for a man of Yarim’s height — indeed, for any man — to see.

He’d seen dragons before, older than this one, and larger — but not this close. Proximity made a vast difference in the impression of sheer size. The scales were like dark emeralds, or the foliage of the part of forests that rarely saw sunlight: a green so deep it was almost black, or a black with green iridescence, flashing subtly between green fire and opalescent blackness in the flickering light of Yarim’s power. The scales on the massive body were as big as Yarim’s hand, and bigger; they grew smaller towards the upper neck and down the legs that ended in wickedly curved claws, obsidian black, obsidian shiny.

The dragon seemed to wear a leather cloak: wine-red, blood-red, the bass hue of garnet. Then it shifted its weight, the cloak lifted to reveal emerald ribbing, and Yarim realized that it was wings. Dark spines decorated the spine, barely visible between the rustling wings; spiked along the ridge of neck and tail, fanned out from the broad head like a hard, sharp version of the layered collars so fashionable in the city’s Wakhib district.

Yarim’s power flickered lower in his half-awed regard of the dragon. I am losing my focus, he thought. Unforgivable. He collected himself. Kharib had mentioned that size mattered with dragons. Yarim could not change his physical size, but he was more than his body. His aura was his banner, the badge of his role as diplomat. In most places, with most people, it granted him diplomatic immunity . . . but would a dragon, especially one unwise to the ways of humans, understand such a thing? Would it respect that?

It would respect power and size, Kharib had assured him. Well, Yarim’s power was not the most impressive, and he was small for his race — but he had a few useful abilities. He drew into himself, into that quiet central place within, inhaled till he contained only air and flame. The whoosh of breath leaving his body outlined his skin with incandescence that exploded outward in a wash of heat and light. It pushed the edges of his aura outward, upward, till he was surrounded by a blazing bird-light, till it rivaled the dragon’s height, till he could gaze out of eyes of fire’s-heart blue at the level of the dragon’s ember-red ones. He could see the creature’s face now, a head that could not quite be called beautiful — there was strength to it, all horned and fanged and fierce, but not refinement, not the near-equine shapeliness he’d seen in some dragons. But it was undeniably striking.

“I am Yarim abd Gibnateb, Guided Voice of the Eight-Fold Tower.” His voice crackled like a bonfire, harsh with the force of his power. “I greet you in the name of the Influence of Gibnateb Tower.”

The dragon considered him for a few thudding heartbeats. It looked into the eyes of Yarim’s banner, ignoring the human shell below. Perhaps the bright display won a response — or perhaps he’d only managed to catch the dragon’s attention. Primal earth, soil mixing with boulders just above magma rivers, rumbled in Yarim’s mind, echoed as hissing toothful words from the dragon’s hinged jaws.

“Some call me Verdant Shadow of the Mountain.” The name — or title, more likely — was imagery and sensation in Yarim’s mind. Cavern shadows, moss on the southern mountainside, ancient trees and older rock.

He felt a deep vibration in his chest and skull. After a moment, he realized it was sound, a bass rumble too low for his ears. It was a draconic chuckle. “What my people call me — you cannot make the sound,” said the dragon.

Yarim’s physical body smiled; his aura’s fiery feathers fluffed. “You might be surprised.”

“No.” The red-gold eyes slitted, pupils barely visible, harder and colder all of a sudden. “You cannot have my Name.”

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