Dragons are meant to be majestic beasts. Savage and cruel, but noble and full of elemental fury. Who doesn’t love a painting of a dragon in flight or battling some lone knight? Even those Chinese dragons that look a bit shit (I know, cultural differences and all that, but long worm with tiny limbs just doesn’t quite do it for me) have a certain level of magnificence you don’t really see in the real world.
Wild animals have an innate ability to impress us, even if you look at a tiger in a cage you can feel how easily it could rip you to pieces, but we still like to add an extra layer of ridiculous to our fantasy beasts. A tiger with wings and a snake for a tail? Now we’re talking.
Which made these dragons all the more disappointing.
Not that they were without a kind of astonishing presence. When you saw them glide around the sky, they did have a kind of ‘I hope it doesn’t fall on me’ quality to them, but it wasn’t the sort of glamorous, gold scales and red fire you get from your CGI dragons.
You expect fake reality to be better than the regular reality you get at home, but you’d hope real fantasy would still top Hollywood’s special effects. Sadly not.
As I got to the beach with my small party in tow, and a group of islanders straggling along behind, the scene out in the bay became more apparent.
The dragons were circling the Council ship. There were half a dozen of them, big and heavy-looking. They weren’t really attacking the ship, they were just making sure it couldn’t sail away. The deck was covered in sailors running around, but I couldn’t tell what they were trying to do other than shit themselves in as many places as possible.
There was one dragon who had managed to perch itself on top of the main mast, which prevented the sails from being unfurled.
You might think a dragon wrapping its lithe body around the tallest mast would be quite a sight, but you’re probably imagining a slinky creature with sinewy limbs ending in elongated talons, its tail winding around the lower part of the mast all the way to the deck, the tip swishing from side to side.
That would look cool, certainly.
What I was seeing was a rather fat winged dinosaur with its flat hoof-like feet embracing the mast in a big hug. It looked like it might fall off if it didn’t hold on as tight as possible. I couldn’t be sure, but it also appeared to have its eyes tightly shut.
The other ship, the Eternal Infinite, was anchored next to the Council ship, but was more or less ignored. There were no dragons trying to stop it from sailing off. If I could reach it, we could probably be on our merry way without any fuss at all.
The only slight problem was that the boats that had brought us ashore were no longer waiting on the beach.
The arrival of the dragons had probably sent them scurrying back to the ship. I could understand their desire to not be left behind on the island if the ship had to leave, but now I had to find another way to get on board.
“What now?” said Laney. She threw Richina down onto the sand where she lay bound and struggling. “Do you wish me to summon a dragon to take us to the ship?”
To be honest, I had rather hoped not to bother the dragons or anyone who might be riding them. If I could slip away like a coward, I’d happily do so. The thing about being called a chicken was that it didn’t hurt nearly as much as being stabbed in the face by an angry girl whose boyfriend you’d killed (twice).
But there wasn’t really any obvious way to get out to the ship. We could swim, but Richina was deadweight and had a high chance of drowning, and Biadet was still looking the worse for wear. It would be a struggle, to say the least.
“Okay,” I said. “How are you going to call one over?”
I was interested to see what device she would use this time. It turned out the method was rather more basic.
“Hey, dragons! Over here!” Laney screamed at the top of her lungs. The dragons, unsurprisingly, ignored her. “I command you to obey me.”
She waved her arms about and stamped her feet. After all this time, her ability to assume she was just more special than everyone around her had not dimmed in the slightest. She was the kind of girl who never changes — she doesn’t improve at all, not one little bit.
“What are you doing?” I asked her. “Don’t you have a magic instrument or something?”
“Why would I need one? I am a princess of Fengarad. All creatures of this land are under my dominion. Ahoy, dragon! Attend me!”
A dragon that had circled a little wider than the rest, approaching the beach before turning back, gave us a cursory glance. If it had actually come down to pick us up I wasn’t sure I’d be able to stand the smug look on Laney’s face I’d have to endure, but the dragon ignored her command and flew back towards the ship.
“You will be sorry, dragon,” she shrieked in a rage. “I will not forget your face.”
I could well imagine Laney tracking down the poor salad-hugger and skewering him on her blade, just to make a point. And then having a painting of it hung in the royal throne room. I could imagine her doing that to a lot of us who had offended her. A painting of her standing on my corpse had probably already been commissioned.
I looked over at Biadet, who was leaning on a stick she’d got from the jungle. “They are here for the Council, not us,” she said.
“Who is?” I asked. So far, I hadn’t seen anyone I recognised. The dragons appeared to be riderless, but that didn’t make much sense. They were clearly being directed by someone. “Can you see where they are?”
Biadet didn’t answer. She looked like she was about to fall over, but she had refused to let me heal her any further. The poison was still affecting her, that much was obvious, but she seemed to be fine with it. I got the feeling she wanted to be out of action.
There was one other way to find out what was going on out on the water. My inclination was to not get involved. I didn’t really want to know who was here or what they were playing at. If there was some kind of fight between the Council and my old party, that was their affair. I preferred to stay out of it. But I didn’t have a way off the island, currently, so I would have to do something.
That something was leaving my body and floating over the water to have a look. That was all. A quick gander at the state of play. At the very least I’d have an idea of where not to go, and they would be none the wiser.
These things never turn out to be that simple.
Once I left my body, the world came to a grinding stop. My attention was immediately drawn to Biadet, who for once had not vanished. She was standing there, her body sprouting black vines that flickered like smoke. Only, they didn’t go anywhere, they just extended a few inches from her body and wavered like black tongues of flame.
I floated closer to get a better look. It was a bit like when I destroyed a vine and they withered away, but caught in that moment. An inch away from disintegrating.
I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Biadet herself seemed frozen in time, like everyone else. I had done something to her, a fundamental change to the way she existed, but was that a good or bad thing? I couldn’t tell.
Nothing else stood out about her condition, other than that she looked pretty awful. Was it really necessary for her to hang around to show me what I’d done to her? Kind of needy, if you ask me.
The dragons paused in mid-flight did not look any more elegant. I made my way through them to the Council ship. That was the centre of the action, so obviously that was where I would go. I’m all about getting stuck in and getting my hands dirty. Just kidding, I actually felt a bit sick and needed to go to the loo. The idea of bumping into one of my party was making my stomach turn.
Guilt is a terrible thing. It forces you to act in a certain way, which you’d think was a good thing. But it doesn’t stop anyone from doing bad things, it just makes them feel terrible afterwards. For a while. I have no idea what the point of it is.
If it made you throw up and shit blood, then I can see it having an effect, the way aversion therapy is supposed to, but a bit queasy for ten minutes? What are you even doing, evolution?
The deck of the ship had sailors in full panic mode. They were not used to seeing dragons, I would guess. They weren’t trying to fight them off, just get out of the way, which is hard to do on a boat.
Captain Nokes was standing by the steering wheel, mouth open, probably barking an order to his men. On the other side of the ship was a single girl. Claire.
She was also shouting something, but who to? There didn’t appear to be anyone with her.
Her clothing had changed since I’d last seen her. No more fancy togs with bits of gold braid and sequins in random places. Now she was dressed in black, shirt and trousers, and black gloves. Her hair was tied back with a simple black scarf. It was like she’d gone for the Dread Pirate Roberts look, but no sword that I could see.
The other thing that struck me were the tears falling down her face. They were motionless, of course, but they were midway on both her cheeks.
This was all under a thick layer of vines. Regular people had attachments, Claire was no different. but there was one vine that looked like it was rotten. Decomposing. Dead, or at least dying. A big one.
Why was she here? I meant on the ship, alone. What was she after? I assumed she had been dropped off by one of the dragons, but just her?
It had something to do with the Council of Four, but they weren’t really here, just their avatars. Did she know that?
If it was the Council the dragons had come for, it would explain why they got here so quickly. They weren’t answering Laney’s call, they were on their way already. Or perhaps they had been following Maurice’s capsule. That did seem the more likely reason. I could easily believe Claire would have come after him in case he got into some kind of difficulty. She was just a bit late. And I think she knew it.
I wandered around a bit more, looking for signs of the others. Flossie had to be around here, I would have thought, unless Claire had graduated to dragonrider.
I drifted across to the other ship. Things were a lot calmer over there. Captain Somya was on the poop deck, watching what was happening. The sailors, living and dead, were lined up along the rail. If only I could have been here for real, we could have pulled up anchor and aweigh we’d go.
This ability of mine really wasn’t very useful when it came down to it. What good was seeing the way things were laid out if you couldn’t do anything about it? And, more importantly, where did I apply for a refund?
There was nothing else to see. I did a quick tour below decks (of both ships), but I didn’t find anyone else of note. Nobody in the middle of planting a bomb or stealing the secret papers that explained everything.
No Flossie. No Jenny.
I made my way back to the beach and returned to my body. Time continued like nothing had happened, like my actions had no effect or meaning. Same as usual.
“I think she wants to say something,” said Laney, indicating Richina on the floor.
I propped her up and removed her gag. “Release me.” I began to put the gag back. “No, no, wait. I won’t try to escape. I promise.”
I guess a person’s word used to be worth something. Now, it was just a way to trick people into doing what you wanted. What happens when someone breaks their promise? Is their reputation ruined? Nope. More than likely they’re seen as a savvy operator.
“Your promise isn’t worth anything to me,” I said. “You’re a liar, and you’re a failure. If you can’t offer me anything better than a promise, there’s no reason to give you anything.”
There was nothing badass about the way I said it. I wasn’t trying to dominate or bully her. Whether she meant it or not, there was just no point to loosening her bonds, other than common human decency. So no point at all.
“Wait,” she screamed as I tried to get the gag back in her mouth. “There’s a boat.” I stopped, waiting to hear the rest. “Over there.” She motioned with her head down the beach. “Show him,” she said to the islanders.
The islanders who had come with us didn’t look very keen to show me anything. I was the least popular person on the island, by quite some way. The dragons were showing no signs of stopping their feast and nothing had gone well for them since I’d arrived. I could see why it might look like I was to blame for their woes.
“This way,” said one of the islanders, deciding it would be better all round to just get rid of me.
The gag went back in her mouth. “I’ll wait to see if there’s an actual boat first,” I said in response to the look she gave me.
There was indeed a boat, hidden in between some rocks. More like a canoe, actually. I shoved Richina in and the islanders pushed us off. The relief in their faces caused by my departure was both obvious and insulting, but I couldn’t blame them.
There were two paddles. I had one, Laney had the other. She was a maniac when it came to any sort of competition, so we kept veering to the right as she insisted on out-paddling me.
We reached the Eternal Infinite without much trouble. No one was too worried about our little vessel with the dragons tearing through the heavens. We clambered aboard, Richina now untied. Not because I trusted her, or even to pay her back for the boat, but because it’s bloody impossible carrying someone up the side of a ship.
I went to stand next to Captain Somya and had the horrible feeling someone was clawing through my brain with dirty fingernails. When I looked over at the other ship, Claire was standing in the bow looking right at me.
“He isn’t dead,” she shouted across at me. “He knew this would happen. He told me what to do. I’ll bring him back.”
I didn’t know what she expected of me. I hadn’t just killed Maurice, I’d eviscerated his body. Perhaps there was a way to bring him back, this was a fantasy world after all, but I wouldn’t even know where to start. I just nodded.
She glared at me. There was no accusation in her eyes, no blame, just fire.
There are supposed to be five stages of grief, but I think they can easily be condensed into one. Denial (fuck no), anger (fuck you), bargaining (for fuck’s sake), depression (fuck me) and acceptance (fuck it). All of those can be reduced to the old favourite: Fuck everybody.
As someone who has experienced loss, I can confirm it’s a valid replacement for all the emotional ups and downs death of a loved one brings. I saw it in Claire then, consuming her.
Claire stepped off the ship. Before she even fell below the rail, a dragon swooped down and she landed on its back. And she was gone.
No explanation, no exchange of information. Whatever she’d come to do, it apparently had nothing to do with me. And she didn’t feel the need to fill me in. The dragons rose up to leave, including those on the island.
I was once again left to my own devices, which was fine by me.
The ship I was standing on creaked, shivered, and then collapsed. The masts fell, the timbers parted, the vessel returned to the wreck it had been only recently. Whatever magic Cowdrey had used to put it back together was no longer working, and the water engulfed us.