The amber sky of early morning greeted, Slygorath, it was calming, with its rich, warm tones, however, it was the only warmth the drake would feel. As he cast eyes to the now extinct flames, he found that those friends of a sort he had made in the evening were now gone. There remained nothing more than the ashes they had created the night prior. He could spit; he wanted to rage and rain fire from his maw, but alas, he could not. All there was for him was to carry on his way. Despite all he could do, all he was worth alive or dead, Slygorath was still just as unwanted as when the stable groom turned him out. Perhaps long ago, he was a marvelous thing, a prize that others would fight to take hold of, but now it seemed that all they could see was the tattered remains of what should have been. Slygorath took flight, his stomach full and nerves tight with fury, he needed some means to alleviate even a fraction of that burden.
Flying over land, keeping along the river’s course, Slygorath could feel that bond, still knit on his end, grow. The walled city sat just to the east as the drake spurred himself onward. He did not know where he would end up, but north seemed a good enough direction for now. Yet, as he passed and that connection grew all the more attainable, he nearly thought he would just fly back to that home. If he were to come too close to the gates without his rider, Slygorath would find an arrow puncturing his chest, and by no means would it be a small one. Or worse still, he would be hunted by the best of the dragons, his own rider likely among them. The shame and embarrassment would be on him more so than when he had left were he to be the prey of his old master. So in fear of these horrible eventualities, Slygorath stayed to the west. He flew for hours until his wings grew tired, at which time he set down in a boggy, marshy bit of swamp.
There was a putrid odor thick in the swamp air, something like sulfur, but Slygorath had to consider it a minor thing. The ground beneath him was loose and prone to rising up his claws, trying as it may to pull him in. At a canter, he moved from where he landed to the nearest strip of land that seemed sturdy. As Slygorath came to a thick mound of rock and dried mud, he began shaking free the dense silt that had accumulated on his claws. It would not entirely slip his scales without water, but it felt better not having it caked on any longer. Looking around, Slygorath recalled his time here, all though it was rather brief. His rider and he had come to collect from a clan of wrinkled old creatures that only barely looked related to humans. They had been kindly despite their appearance and seemed to have taken a shine to Slygorath. One of them, his face not so horribly knotted with wrinkles, even came out to pet at his wings. Perhaps they could have use for him or at least would find good cause to keep him even as a pet.
With cautious steps, Slygorath picked his way along the terrain until coming far enough away from the marsh to find most land firm beneath his claws. Not so much tucked away in the trees, but jutting out from them was a row of huts and hovels that spouted smoke above the canopy. From his last visit, the drake could recall that these were home to the strange, aged things. However, as he moved closer to the huts, a gray mass rose from the shadows around them. In only a few bounds and leaps, the blur became more apparent. As the gargoyle stopped in the weeds just before Slygorath, it slid free a jagged, short blade, and produced a buckler. She was fierce-looking, much like a dragon with a shorter snout but made stout and forced to walk upright like a man. Her wings were tattered, they would do no good at flying but could give lift if need be. The armor that served as little more than metal framework set around the face and torso gave the impression she had seen battle before, it was well worn. Slygorath stopped in his tracks and simply beheld the stolid and dutiful creature that stared up at him with eyes harder than the stone that layered her exterior.
Staring down the gargoyle, Slygorath could not think of what to do, he only murmured lowly, “Why you block way?”
“No trade with riders no more. Masters say kill riders, no talk. But where is rider for you?” she hissed, the yellow orbs inside the helm searching about the drake.
Twisting his head either direction, as though genuinely confused himself, Slygorath responded, almost humorously, “No rider. No trade. No kill?”
“What no-rider dragon want?” the creature asked in return, her suspicion of Slygorath not lessened in the slightest by this revelation.
He tried to hide the hint of shame that marred his speech as he hazarded the question, “Home? Slyg-gorath want home. Slyg-gorath have no home, no more. Your masters give home?”
“Not thing I answer. Must talk to old one, wise one. You no talk with wise one, me go, come back, tell you. You no move, no come closer, or me stick you,” the gargoyle retorted, nodding her head in agreement. She accepted Slygorath’s bob of the head as answer enough before she charged off towards the queer homes in the tree line.
The sun carried on its path across the sky, bright and cloudless the summer heat was seen more than felt by the drake. Slygorath’s scales would not admit the scolding hot sunlight, but he watched as languid and fatigued hogs tossed themselves in the cool muddy swamp water by the opposite shore. It was a careless thing to do, regardless of how hot the day grew, as Slygorath knew of those creatures that lurked in the swamp. On his last visit, he recalled the great lizards, their exterior sporting thick, exposed masses of bones as well as the smooth and wriggling creatures that almost could have been serpents. However, neither of those behemoths came searching for an easy meal in the way of those hogs, yet they did not go entirely unmolested. Whining and crying broke the air, and the soothing song of the cicadas as one of the fatter pigs began to flail out of control. In moments, the others fled to the shore and then quickly up the hillside as their brother fought to escape the thick silt floor of the swamp. Stretching his neck long to get a better glimpse, Slygorath watched as the hog was devoured by what had to be one of the most devious creatures in the whole bog.
What looked to be a boulder or submerged sandbar sporting weeds and crustacean split open wide. The drake could see what appeared to be teeth, not long and sharp, but two great bones closed in on the squealing pig. Water and mud flowed in with the poor creature, but whatever this monstrosity was, it did not care. In one great snap, bones broke, and gore erupted only to be washed in with the mud and dirtied waters. The beak of the massive creature then snapped shut, allowing the water to submerge it once more. Sinking lower, the predator no doubt buried itself once more in silt and sand to wait for its next victim. Slygorath had only to thank his luck, perhaps to praise the prince demon of luck Lotrice, for not having crossed one of those creatures earlier. As he pulled his head back to again wait patiently for the gargoyle to return, Slygorath found he was no longer alone.
“Why what is a drake doing in these parts with no rider? And not a wild one either? A shame, I would have loved to tame a new pet,” a white-haired old woman spoke as she reached out to touch Slygorath’s head. He bowed, obedient as though this were his own rider. Slygorath held his tongue, however, being unaware if it were proper for him to speak. So he waited, allowing the old one to fondle his halved horns and caresses his scales, even being so accommodating as to open his maw and let her check his fangs. Finally, once she had her measure of Slygorath, she let him go, “Yes, well and truly a shame we can not take you in. That brand on you will get us into trouble, and we can’t have that now, can we? Best we could do for you is a night’s shelter or a meal or... Or, of course, you could serve as something of a test subject. What do you say drake, would you like to breathe the breath of true scaleborns once more?”
Slygorath stared, encapsulated by the strange old woman in her dark and tattered robes. He had seen something of these swamp people in his prior visit, his rider had said something of their kind to another dragon knight. However, Slygorath could not devise what they said about these strange folk no more than he could give an answer. As a hard, rough hand clapped him on his flank, Slygorath wheeled to see the gargoyle standing beside him. With a touch of joy in her tone, she spoke, “Tell wise one. She listen dragon, give you chance. Wise one has many trick, she do you one, make you strong.”
“Your trick give me breath? I want breath!” Slygorath called out with glee, unable to believe that he could be restored in a sense. Surely he would never be a true dragon again, but he could be something more than a dragon of man. The wise one took the lead with Slygorath behind her and the gargoyle at the rear. What Slygorath agreed to, he could not be sure; however, it had promise more than a night in their company, or any meal could offer.
It took the humans some time tarrying about to prepare for whatever strange ritual the old one had devised. All the while, the gargoyle kept a watchful eye on Slygorath. Not as though the drake were likely to cause any harm, but perhaps studying the dragon. From her eyes, the runt of a drake seemed timid in his manner. He watched the humans, paying full attention to the patterns they marked in the dirt and the ritualistic material being placed at specific points of the marker. In truth, Slygorath only remained so attentive out of fearful anxiety. These old ones could kill him with their strange magic, that much he was sure of; however, he couldn’t decide if they would. The etching on the floor was
nothing like he had ever seen, but the same could be said of the objects set all around. Some of them stunk like long preserved herbs while other bits reeked of blood. It wasn’t for a short while after they were done that Slygorath realized he was supposed to step inside of that symbol.
A bit cautiously, Slygorath stepped inside the chalk circle and met the eyes of the wise one who gave him a nod of her head. He curled up in the space, nestling into himself as though he were going to rest, but did not shut his eyes for a second. All the while, the humans chanted, muttering words that had never been spoken in his presence before, Slygorath watched cautiously. So preoccupied with the strange ritual, Slygorath did not notice the gargoyle was now absent. As he searched the shadows of the hut, hoping to see those glowing orbs in the helmet, the drake’s vision was suddenly obscured.
A wall of dark, twisting flame rose around him, the entire circle was spouting hungry fingers of black fire. Perhaps he had seen a shine just beside him as he searched for the gargoyle, but Slygorath could never have anticipated that such a shimmer were glowing embers. But it wasn’t the idea of being burnt that worried the drake, even without the ability to spit the substance, his scales were the perfect armor against it. It was the simple fact that these flames were not like those used for a cook fire or that true dragons could expel. They were black flames, a shade darker than the night itself, and by no means did they give off real heat. These old humans, Slygorath began to recall, were of that suspicious and criminal order his rider had referred to as pyromancers. The memory of their arts began to fill his head when the flames suddenly converged on him, covering him in the matter of a second.
Slygorath tried to scream and roar with rage and agony, but as he did so, the dark flames poured into his maw. Like a torrent of boiling water, the flood of magic rushed down his throat and filled his lungs full. There was immense heat in his guts, and somewhere inside, a long underused piece of him began to rattle with life. In the midst of it all, the drake tried to rise, to flee before things could worsen, yet his limbs protested. As soon as he had unwound himself, Slygorath spilled to the floor, not making even the slightest progress outside of the circle. Death felt to be looming, it would not be long until it had taken him in truth. It felt as though scales were being pried off his back, his wings being eviscerated, and the memory of his horns being severed returned a new. The brand, that shameful mark to have to bare now without his rider, ached as though impaled by another creature’s claw. Coming to the point in which Slygorath may simply break from the pain of it all, the flames died away.
Weakly, pulling himself out with his foreclaws, Slygorath dragged himself from the ceremonial marker. His eyes flickered open and shut, the world became nothing more than a series of moving pictures that lacked continuity. First, all of the cloaked humans were around him, caressing his scales and prodding at both horns and wings. Then there was but the one, the wise old one who took of a mortar some minty substance and smeared it down his face. After that, Slygorath was alone for a time, in the dark and feeling grateful the hut was cold all but for his own body. Finally, the gargoyle was standing before him, the only discernible piece of her visible being her glowing eyes.
“You no be mad with wise ones. They say it no go good, mark still there. They no want trouble, not happy they not get it,” she quietly rumbled, her tone distant.
Quivering out a breath, Slygorath forced words out, “It no work? But, it hurt, hurt bad. How can it no work if it hurt?”
“Wise one not know, said it should have worked. She can do no more for you, dragon. But, wise one is very wise, give you more than nothing,” the stony fingers reached from the darkness and felt for Slygorath’s head. Pointing him in a particular direction, she spoke, “Beyond forest, up falls, through mountains. At peak of big mountain, there are other wise ones. These wise ones know other things. They maybe help you. Wise one think they know what do. They only help who they know. You must keep wise one’s name in head. Morriel, Morriel will do what she can for you. Morriel is spirit-sister with wise one here. Tell them, they will help, no hurt if you no hurt them.”
“When sun come up, I fly,” Slygorath replied, bobbing his head with conviction, certainty of a goal for the first time since being sent off.
A small laugh came from the gargoyle, “Funny drake, sun up now. Sun up and down three time now since ritual. Go now, day is good, big sun, warm sun in sky.”
There was no fond farewell, nothing left to be said or done, Slygorath took the sky as soon as the gargoyle led him from the hut. She had stayed by his side until he was off and kept a watchful gaze in his direction until he had wholly vanished. Somehow, Slygorath figured, she did not believe he was content with it all being for nothing. Truthfully, he was angry, but even were the gargoyle absent, he would not have done a thing. Harsh words would have been uttered, but the instinct to attack and kill humans was mostly absent from his mind. Sure, if the fire-haired man were there and directed him to do so, Slygorath would not question the order. But on his own, so accustomed to not attacking humans, Slygorath had no desire for it. His efforts, he assured himself, were better focused on clearing as much ground as possible before nightfall. Judging by the sun, he had all day to get near enough to the mountains.