Usually, when someone dramatically leaps from a great height, they have a plan in mind. Or at least a parachute. If Flossie was hoping to be caught by a swooping dragon, she seemed to have got her timing a bit off.
The dragons, at least a dozen of them, were approaching the ship but were still a fair way off, skimming the tops of the fluffy white clouds. We were high in the frigid atmosphere, avoiding the storm raging below so it was easy to spot the flock of flying lizards and gauge the distance — exactly too far.
I ran to the side of the ship and looked over to see what Flossie’s intentions were. A quick death?
She was falling like a sack of potatoes as she disappeared into the clouds beneath us. A sack of potatoes, of course, falls at the same rate as anything else. If you go to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and drop objects of different weights, they hit the ground at the same time. Galileo proved that, but he might have revised his theory if he’d seen the way a fat chick falls off a flying ship.
“Was that intentional?” I asked Dudley, who was peering over the rail beside me.
“Um, well, I think so, probably.”
He had faith in the love of his life, but then he would, the giant doofus. Right up to the point where she proved him wrong.
Fortunately for Flossie, we were over an ocean and water wouldn’t necessarily kill her. It could — it could smash her into pieces if she came down at the wrong angle, although you have to give mad props to a death by belly flop.
Flossie had the added advantage of a nice layer of subcutaneous fat to help protect her. If it worked for the mighty whale, it should do the same for the ginger bint. No, I’m not implying Flossie was some blubbery behemoth, comparing a girl to a whale isn’t always meant in a pejorative sense. Everyone loves whales (especially the Japanese).
The dragons were closing in (for what reason, I had no idea), and the storm was still raging on the other side of the cloud bank. If Flossie had some secondary dragon ability, like wings that grew out of her back, now was the time to deploy them.
There was no sign of her. Dudley didn’t seem unduly worried, just the regular amount of concern etched into his furrowed brow about life in general.
“Take us down,” I shouted at Richina.
“No, wait,” said Dudley. “Give her a chance.”
“Chance to do what?” I was all for letting others take huge risks — I was very good at bouncing back from other people’s failures and fatalities — but there was no obvious route to success from diving into the sea for no reason.
“Sometimes,” said Dudley, “the only way to force someone to prove their love for you is to give them a choice that has no middle ground.”
“What the fuck does that mean?”
“Worry not,” said Laney as she jumped onto the railing. “I shall save her from drowning.” She stuck her sword into the top of the rail, the blade sinking a good inch into the wood. “If I break my neck and am permanently bedridden, I want you to be the one to smother me with a pillow.”
This was Laney’s idea of a romantic notion. Assisted suicide by that special someone. I grabbed her by the ankle as she jumped and yanked her back onto the ship. I’m not the strongest person in the world, but Laney, despite her wiry strength (drawn more from fury than muscle), was a lightweight who punched above her weight. She flew backwards onto the deck, landing in a clattering heap.
“Stay there and don’t move,” I said, although I didn’t expect to be obeyed. “Richina, take us back into the storm.”
It’s always annoying when you manage to get out of something you don’t want to do nice and early, only to be dragged back in at a later point when things are much worse. I could have just abandoned Flossie, but it’s hard to simply turn your back on people. Believe me, I’ve had a lot of experience in that area.
I could also have just trusted Flossie and assumed she knew what she was doing. Which is even harder.
As the wings tilted and the ship headed down, Flossie rose out of the clouds on the neck of a dragon. She came up alongside us and waved.
“Where did he come from?” I shouted across to her.
“Ah knew Vikchutni wouldn’t let me go. He loves me too much.”
That was her plan? To rely on one of the dragons to leave the strike force and come to her rescue, proving Galileo wrong in the process (although to be fair, that fucking show-off could use taking down a peg or two — Spanish Inquisition had a point, for once)?
“How did she lose control of the dragons in the first place?” I asked Dudley. “They can’t have been that upset when she evolved into lizard form.” You’d think they would have welcomed her into the club.
“They were stolen from her,” said Dudley.
Not often your ex turns out to be a dragon-seducer. She did have the ability to affect emotions, so I could see her turning the dragons’ affections away from Flossie, but why?
Women, though, know how to handle this kind of fight better than any guy. Equality doesn’t mean you can’t have your own area of expertise. We’re better at handjobs, and they know how to use psychological warfare to drive a wedge between two perfectly happy parties.
Flossie had gone full-frontal with her emotional counter-attack. Jenny might have been able to twist the dragons’ loyalties, but how far can you allow someone to fall before you have to step in to try and catch them?
If I convince you the person you love madly would be better off without you, I can make you leave them, especially if you’re an insecure dweeb. But if you see them fall apart without you around, it’s going to break the spell of doubt I cast. Even self-loathing can’t hide the truth when it falls out of the sky right in front of you.
“Follow me,” Flossie shouted, leading the way towards the oncoming dragons.
“Will do,” Dudley shouted back, bursting with pride. I wasn’t sure what he was so pleased about. He never doubted her, but that had very little to do with her not dying. Although I guess absolute faith, even if it’s misguided, makes it easier to handle the anxiety of putting every fucking reason for your existence in the hands of a chubby little redhead.
She had managed not to get herself killed, but only one dragon had come over to our side. The others were still coming in hot.
“Are they going to attack us?” I asked Dudley. No, I don’t know why I asked him, either.
“They mean to stop us,” said Dudley. “Wherever it is you want to go, somebody doesn’t like it.”
He gave me a look that suggested whatever I was doing, it was probably the right path if it pissed people off this much.
The problem was, the dragons were armed. Dragon fuel, I was pretty sure, melted wood beams. The fairy wings probably as well. I assumed they wouldn’t hurt Flossie directly, but that was an excellent reason to keep her on board rather than out there.
“Have we got a way to attack them?” I asked Captain Somya.
“We have harpoons.”
On one level, it was an appealing idea. Harpooning dragons from a ship in the sky would look cool, from a distance, like, a really big distance. But it wasn’t practical. Either they’d break free or, if the ropes held, the ship would end up getting ripped apart. And it wouldn’t stop them getting close enough to spew stomach acid all over us.
The sailors also didn’t look like they were ready for this. The clue was in the way they were cowering and hiding behind each other.
Flossie seemed to have a plan, though. She was racing towards them, all fired up and ready to take back her dragon army. I could always leave it to her.
As the dragons closed to spitting distance, I left my body. Jenny might be able to manipulate emotions, but I was able to unplug the deepest of ties. If you want to cut a piece of string, it’s easiest when you pull the string taut, and love, you see, is a bond that is under constant strain.
Once I was floating above myself, the world froze into a magical tableau of airborne madness. I could now fly the distance between us and the dragons, no wind to blow me away, no cold to chill my bones. I could see everything and take my time.
What I saw was no one riding these dragons, but many vines growing out of them. It was easy to spot the one from Jenny, it throbbed with a familiar glow.
It made sense that the one vine I would be able to identify was hers. It had been attached to me for long enough, even I could sense its familiarity (and I often don’t even recognise my own handwriting).
The plan was simple. She had these beasts convinced of something or other, I would disabuse them of that notion. Maybe I could have used a bit more finesse, worked out exactly what the deal was with turning them against their beloved Dragonrider, but why sweat the small stuff? Jenny influence bad.
I cut the offending vines from all the dragons.
I returned to my body and expected some startling changes to the way this battle would proceed, and I got it. The dragons fell out of the sky.
Whatever I’d done, it not only affected their mood, it affected their wings. They did look less aggressive, but probably because they were shitting themselves.
“No!” screamed Flossie.
I left my body again. Killing the dragons was one solution to my problem, but it certainly wasn’t the ideal one. Having the dragons on my side was the way to go, I felt. That sentiment of ‘If I can’t have you, no one can,’ is a terrible one. My feeling is more one of, ‘If I can’t have you, I need to take notes from someone who can.’
This time, I floated over to the falling dragons, grabbed the severed vines that were streaming out from behind them, and took them over to Flossie.
There was no way to be sure this would work, it might even be dangerous, but welcome to the world of progressive fantasy. Here we try stupid shit, and hope something magical happens.
There were already plenty of vines coming off Flossie, most of them going to the ship where Dudley was. There was a big one between her and Vikchutni, though. I decided a little grafting would make everything fine and dandy. I had no idea why cutting the vine had taken away their power of flight, and attaching them to Flossie and Vikchutni could mean they would all go down together, but YOLO!
It wasn’t as tricky to do as some of my recent operations — the one between Richina and her doll had been the most painful, and the shortest lasting. The vines from the dragons joined with the bond between Flossie and Vikchutni very easily, I only needed to touch them together.
Once I’d connected all of them to Flossie, I returned to my body. Time restarted, and the dragons rose back up, wings flapping slowly. They looked a bit monged, but then they always looked like that.
“They’re back! Ah’ve got them back!”
Flossie was elated, although who knew how long my jerry-rigged connections would last? It would do for now.
If my little grafting plan hadn’t worked, then what? I would have found another, possible more brutal way. If I can’t have you, I’m going to make you want me. Which could mean losing a little weight, wearing something revealing and fluttering eyelids suggestively (I assume women have something similar they do), or it could mean putting a gun to someone’s head. These things can quickly get out of hand, luckily I didn’t have to find out how far I was willing to go.
Now that the dragons were back under Flossie’s control, we were able to continue on our merry way. The sailors were petrified and not much use but would do as I said, Richina was a mindless automaton, I’d forced the dragons back into Flossie’s hands and Wesley was locked down in my head. You might think I had trust issues, but I would say I was making sure I didn’t. Some people lead through charisma and earned loyalty. I used alternative methods.
It took a couple of hours to get back above land. The clouds cleared and I could see Gorgoth in the distance. Either the Council couldn’t create storms on land, or they had to use a different set of weather patterns to do it. Judging by how long it took before, they would need several hours to get something like that up and running.
It was only around midday, and the skies were clear, which meant it would be pretty difficult to get into the city unseen. A flying ship escorted by dragons wasn’t the sort of thing you could sneak by people. I could have tried landing outside the city and taken another route in, but I didn’t really see the point. The good thing about having a dragon armada was that even if they spotted you, what were they going to do about it?
I decided to favour speed over stealth and landed in the main city square outside the temple — Richina brought us in very smoothly.
There was, as you’d expect, some panic. Everyone ran away, which was great. Soldiers did come out of the temple as we touched down, but they were led by Joshaya in his Pope guise, dressed in papal splendour and smiling. He looked delighted to see us.
“You’re here. I knew you’d come in the end, I knew if I left you alone, you’d make the right choice.”
He’d ended up plumping for the same option all gods choose in the end: I give up, do what you want.
It starts with constant messages — write this book, look after this garden, build this boat — but none of these side quests ever lead anywhere. Then it’s all plagues and floods and passive-aggressive stone tablets. Finally, they leave behind a ghostwritten memoir that comes across as very bitter — Before me, you were nothing! — and then they wait for you to come begging to be taken back.
It was a bit tricky climbing down off a ship in the middle of a square, but Joshaya had jumped up onto the deck to greet us while the crew sorted something out in the way of a gangplank.
“Yeah, great to be back,” I said. Here was another person who was both enemy and ally, and useless company in either form.
“Finally,” said Richina, and leapt forward, arms stretched out, her hands like claws and killing intent in her eyes. I realised I wasn’t the target, it was Joshaya next to me.
“Stop!” I tried to command her through sheer force of will, but it felt like I had her on a chain that was slipping through my hands. Actually, it felt like it was sliding up through my oesophagus.
Had this been the plan all along? To get Richina close enough to Joshaya to get the last of the old gods out of the way? If so, it was hardly going to work with me here to freeze her in her tracks.
I could stop time, but I wasn’t the fastest draw in the west. Before I could react to Richina’s attack, she was hit from multiple angles by dragon acid. She dissolved in seconds, not able to even cry out.
“What did you do that for?” I yelled at Flossie, who was sitting on Vikchutni’s head. “I needed her.” Not words I thought I’d ever say out loud.
“Ah didn’t,” Flossie wailed at me. “They did it themselves. They were trying to protect you.” Her expression said she was as bewildered about why the dragons would want to do that as I was.
This was a disaster. If Richina died, she would go back to wherever her respawn point was, and I wouldn’t be able to use her to break out the old gods. The dragons had formed some sort of attachment to me, probably because of my fiddling with their vines, and this was the result. This was why I hated it when people tried to help with their good ideas and equally valid opinions. Fucking useless idiots.
“She isn’t dead,” said Wesley inside my head.
“I fucking know that,” I snapped.
“No, I mean she’s here, in front of me.”
“Oh.” She had respawned inside the space in my head. I wasn’t sure why, but maybe I could still release the gods. It did mean I now had another woman living in my brain, which was bound to cause me problems. If they turned on each other, it would be a nightmare. If they got on, it would be a nightmare. I tell you, I would be much happier with a man inside me. Wait, that came out wrong.
Next two chapters are available on Patreon now.Afterword from Mooderino