360: What Becomes of the Dragonhearted?

Biadet’s colour returned to normal but she remained unconscious. She was breathing, but I wasn’t sure if that was indicative of anything. For all I knew, it was all clockwork under the hood.

“You are wasting your efforts,” said Laney, standing over me. “It would be better to put her out of her misery. A few carefully aimed incisions are all it would take.”

“Some of us enjoy our misery. It’s all we’ve got.” I stood up and looked up at the sky, raising a hand to shade my eyes.

It was an impressive sight, all those dragons soaring through the air. It was probably more impressive at this distance — dragons had a majestic quality that was inversely proportional to how close to you they were.

How had they got here so quickly? Laney had only put out the call a few minutes ago, and here they were gliding effortlessly towards us like they weren’t huge combine harvesters made flesh.

Could they have been waiting nearby, waiting for me to give the signal? That would suggest someone had predicted I would run into problems and need help, which would require foresight, a reckless willingness to offer assistance without the promise of reward, and an expectation of my general ineptitude. I think I would have noticed if that kind of person existed.

Actually, I did know of one person like that — me. Perhaps I had rediscovered time travel and had come back from the future to lend myself a hand.

The other possibility was that there was a way for dragons to cover massive distances in a short time. A magical portal, perhaps, or supersonic farting. My money would be on the latter.

There were a couple dozen of them, at least. They were flying in a V-formation, wings spread and their flight path steady — a giant arrow headed for the island. They were out over the water, a few minutes away. Who were they bringing with them?

I would assume Flossie, but maybe also the others. I wasn’t sure I was ready for a reunion. Well, I was absolutely sure I wasn’t ready, but you can’t always choose your moment.

The formations split in two, with half the dragons veering off to the side. It wasn’t clear where they were going, there was only water in every direction — water and a couple of ships.

Were they going to engage the Council in a maritime battle? If it meant I wouldn’t have to deal with my old party, I was all for it. Although, the council weren’t really on their ship, and I assumed their lack of action so far meant they were off dealing with Peter.

The rest of the dragons came sweeping down, riderless. They landed around us, crashing into trees and generally causing a mess. No time was wasted in greetings or even acknowledgement of my existence; acid vomiting and eating were the priority.

They had the look of someone who has only ever arrived at a buffet table an hour after it opened, and has to make do with whatever’s left, but today they got here ten minutes before anyone else, and everything had just been put out. Time to load up your plate.

“Princess Laney and the Dragon Army,” said Laney. “It will make a good story.”

She was standing next to me in her underwear, hands on hips and crimson hair streaming in the wind. Damicar had picked up her jacket and was holding it for her to put back on, but she was ignoring him in favour of posing in her panties. Not to judge, but I was starting to think she was a bit of an exhibitionist.

“Like what you see.” It wasn’t a question.

“Can you put your clothes back on?” I requested. “The dragons might mistake you for a carrot and eat you.” Her skin was still quite red from contact with Richina.

Laney turned to face me. “I felt you coursing through me, deep, deep inside. Your power mixed with my own — it was exhilarating.” Her lips parted as her tongue slid across them. “I know you felt it, too.”

“It’s a one-way process, I didn’t feel anything.” I grabbed the jacket from Damicar and threw it at Laney’s face. "It was probably puberty kicking in, you’re about due."

I was no longer in need of dragon rescue (not from the islanders, anyway) but I still planned to use them to destroy the island. If this was one big plant like Damicar had suggested, it would need to be eradicated all the way to the roots.

Richina was lying on the ground at my feet. She was still a problem, and one I had no real way of dealing with apart from keeping her unconscious. At least the way into the shrine was no longer blocked and I could find out what had happened to Wesley. Had she abandoned me or had she been betrayed herself?

Part of me didn’t want to know the answer. I think there’s a natural reluctance in most people — certainly in me — to not want to hear bad news. If you don’t hear it, then it doesn’t really exist. It’s like that thing about if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, did it really fall? Only, the more relevant way to pose that question would be: If a tree falls in a forest and no one else hears it, can I pretend I didn’t hear it, too?

But refusing to get yourself tested doesn’t stop a disease from spreading. We all know it’s better to get the biopsy and start the treatment. It’s common sense. You gain nothing from wilful ignorance, other than the joy of not knowing the horrible fucking truth.

“Can you tie her up,” I said, pointing at Richina. I didn’t know how effective that would be, but it had to be better than letting her move freely.

“Oh, yes,” said Laney, partly dressed. “I am beyond excellent at binding people with ropes. No one ever gets away from me.”

“What about the island people?” asked Damicar. The islanders had fallen like wilted stalks and had formed a crop circle around us. Biadet had taken them out in some manner I couldn’t identify. There was no blood or bruising as far as I could tell.

“We’ll let the dragons have them.” Not really the way the victorious hero treats the vanquished — feeding prisoners to dragons is traditionally more of an evil overlord kind of move — but what was I supposed to do with them? You could argue it wasn’t really their fault, they had been forced to do a job without being asked, but you could say the same about me, so fuck ‘em. Every tradition had to start somewhere.

“I’ll be back in a sec,” I said as I walked down the steps into the shrine.

There was no avoiding it, I had to confront Arthur and decide what to do about him. Ideally, both he and Peter could go take a flying fuck, but how do you get someone to agree to that?

I would assume there are some people who thrive on facing a challenge. The blood-buzzing thrill of danger and the rectal tickle of anticipation. Others, I can say with a great deal of certainty, only experience dread. You can try to tell yourself there’s no point spazzing out, you’ve got to do it, so you might as well enjoy it, but when your body is getting juiced with hormone levels its never experienced before, your tiny voice of reason isn’t going to have much impact. What you need is to expose yourself to those insanely high levels on a regular basis, not just once in a while. You only have to watch the England football team to see the results if you don’t.

I reached the archway without incident. No one tried to stop me, no traps peppered me with poisoned darts. Once I left my body and floated outside of myself, the uncomfortable knot in my stomach stopped bothering me. The uncomfortable knot in my mind continued, business as usual.

On the other side of the archway was darkness. I increased the brightness of my ball of light, but nothing revealed itself.

“Hello? Wesley? Arthur?”

There was no response. It also felt different to before. Not that I could claim to have a clear understanding of what this place was or what rules it operated by (if any), but there as a distinctly empty feel to it that wasn’t there before.

Where could they have gone? Arthur was meant to be stuck here, but that was based on what I’d been told, and I was generally told a lot of bullshit. They could be hiding, but why would anyone need to hide from me? I’m usually the one who has to do the hiding.

Whatever was happening now, it felt like I wasn’t invited. They’d all moved on to the next party, the one only the hip people knew about. I was left to amuse myself. Chance would be a fine thing.

I re-emerged from the shrine with no idea what to do now. Where was I supposed to collect my winnings? I was the winner, right? I wasn’t dead, so I should get some kind of reward. If the reward was being able to continue living my life, I might ask for a recount.

The only reasonable course of action seemed to be to destroy the island and leave it as a monument to my pettiness. If this was the place everyone wanted to control, I would let them have it, as an acid-coated lump of rock. The dragons, I was fairly sure, would back me up.

What would this achieve? How would this prevent unsavoury forces from claiming dominion? I dunno. Which part of monumental pettiness are you failing to grasp?

Richina, still out for the count, was now bound, gagged and blindfolded. She also had a noose around her neck. Killing her wasn’t the plan, so I assumed Laney wanted a quick and convenient way to restrict her airflow and put her back to sleep if required.

Laney was a girl who didn’t put much forethought into her actions, most of them being impromptu and violent, but when she did plan ahead, you could be sure it would be very thoroughly done, and with a hint of BDSM.

Biadet was back on her feet. She looked a bit pale and unsteady but other than that she was the same as before — untrustworthy.

“Why didn’t you let me die?” she said in a flat voice containing no gratitude.

“The Princess insisted,” I said. Laney was so outraged by this slur she couldn’t get the words out. “So she could be the one to kill you in a fair fight.”

This appeased Laney, somewhat. “That at least is an acceptable reason to let the traitor live. For now.”

“We can’t keep doing this,” said Biadet. “Eventually, one of us will have to land a death blow.” She made it sound like we’d all been deliberately letting each other off.

The dragons were doing a pretty good job of turning the jungle into a very nice lawn. Pretty soon, we’d be able to take out the croquet set and have a game. Biadet would cheat and Laney would try to cave her head in with the mallet, and then we’d have cucumber sandwiches.

Speaking of which, the cucumbers were starting to come round. The islanders weren’t dead, just a bit droopy. They got to their feet and saw the devastation being enacted around them. They didn’t take it well.

There was a lot of wailing and crying. A few of them attempted to launch an attack on the dragons using wooden spears. The dragons spat acid at them, the attackers and their weapons, reducing both to wet gunk.

Once it had been established that the dragons were the natural predators of the islanders, surrender was their only recourse. They began looking around for who to surrender to, and didn’t seem to like any of the choices.

They huddled together outside the shrine, waiting for someone to tell them what to do. The problem with emancipation is the paralysis that comes with freedom of choice. Sure, getting to pick your leader is a nice way to fool yourself into thinking you’re in control of your own life, but you’re just choosing someone to obey. Once they take office, you go back to doing what you’re told.

As someone who really got to make his own decisions, I don’t know if I would recommend it. What was I supposed to do now? Well, there was one thing I still wanted from these people, and I seemed to have the upper hand, so might as well use it.

“Hey, children of the corn, yes, you, don’t pretend you can’t hear me. Do you want me to set the dragons on you?”

The dragons probably wouldn’t pay me the blind bit of notice, but my empty threat got the islanders to look at me.

“Where’s Maurice’s body? You haven’t eaten him yet, have you?” I assumed not, or they’d be trying to use his powers. Would they work against hungry hungry dragons?

One of the islanders stepped forward. He was the one who had been president before me. The current president wasn’t available, so I supposed he was filling in.

“If we return the body, will you call off your beasts?” It was a reasonable trade. One I had no doubt they would try to get out of as soon as they got what they wanted. “You can consider this a formal proposal.”

“Oh, a formal proposal? In that case, my formal response is fuck you. This isn’t a negotiation. You lost. You lied and cheated and did everything you could think of to give yourself an unfair advantage, and you still lost. To me! Must be fucking humiliating, I mean, must hit you right in the solar plexus, the embarrassment of getting stomped so thoroughly by a rank amateur. I don’t know how you’ll live with yourselves. Luckily for you…”

They didn’t seem too happy with my approach to winning. They had the look of someone who can’t believe you won’t give them a chance to win their money back. The one thing I can guarantee you is that the person who demands you play one more hand out of fairness would never give you the same chance if the positions were reversed. They think no one can tell what a piece of shit they are, so they can claim they would, but they never seem to realise that demanding someone give you something not on offer is the douchebag’s calling card.

It’s the same people who think they can say thank you to avoid showing gratitude and say sorry instead of making actual amends. It’s hard to know how to explain it to them when they don’t get that saying goodbye and not leaving isn’t a clever ruse, it’s fucking mental.

“We will make you president for life,” he said, like this was the most amazing offer ever made. Buy now, and get this tropical island absolutely free.

“This is outrageous,” said Laney. “I defeated your president in unarmed combat. Honour and chivalry dictate that you make me your queen.”

As a monarchist, Laney didn’t seem to understand how democracies worked. You couldn’t just beat up the old leader to become the new leader, although it would certainly make election night more interesting. Fewer graphs and pie charts showing voter turnout, more slow-motion action replays of roundhouse kicks to the head.

“President for life,” he repeated. “No term limits, no challenge to your authority.”

The thing about being president for life is that you only have to shorten the life in question to end the arrangement. President for life and afterlife, then maybe we have something to talk about.

“I can’t believe you people. Do you really think you’re in a position to make deals? This idea that you can find a way to string me along until somebody worthy of being your superior comes along, it’s insulting. To me and to the guy you’re waiting for. Why would he want to rule over you when there are so many more deserving mindless drudges out there looking for their perfect totalitarian dictator? You should all be on your knees, begging to do whatever I want for nothing in return. Because that’s what you fuckers are worth.”

One by one they got down on their knees. Even the dragons stopped eating to watch.

“What do you want from us?” said the kneeling-acting-president.

“I’ve already told you, give me Maurice’s body.”

“And you will call off the dragons?”

“You guys really don’t understand how status works in a non-democratic setting. Give me Maurice, and then hope it puts me in a good mood. Or don’t, and watch your island disappear one bite at a time.”

I could feel the reluctance. Giving in to my demands would feel like defeat, which was annoying mainly because they’d already fucking lost.

“We were told to take the body to the heart of the island.”

“The island has a heart?”

“The heart of godsbane, where the Golden Wing resides.”

“And how do I get to the heart of the island?”

He turned and looked a the shrine. Was that where Arthur was, another level deeper inside the shrine? Or was this a trick to get me to go inside so they could brick it up and get me out of the way.

“Okay,” I said, “lead the way.”

“And the dragons?”

“Give me what I want.”

“They’ll have eaten everything by the time we get back.”

There was a time when being magnanimous in victory and showing compassion for your enemy wasn’t seen as a sign of weakness. I think it was a Tuesday.

“Then,” I said, “you better give me what I want quickly.”

 

Next two chapters available on Patreon now.

Afterword from Mooderino
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