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A dragon ran loudly through the forest, crashing helplessly through brush and logs and trailing her ripped wing behind her. Her scales were red and dark with blood where the dead skin's arrows pierced them. Her eyes darted back and forth, hoping the castle was near, hoping she'd reach it in time, hoping she wouldn't die like this.
I'll never see my eggs again, she thought. I'll never watch them grow. I'll never teach them how to run a kingdom, how to catch fish, how to read and write and sing... What kind of a queen was she, to let herself fall to the nastiest, the weakest, and the stupidest predator?
There, the castle, jutting greasy back off the side of the mountain like a sore and crooked tooth. She leapt off the ground and glided awkwardly. Her wing ached. Her chest strained under the effort of constant running.
An arrow whizzed by with a mosquito sound. She called out with her mind: "I'm here! Help me!" But there was no answer from the castle. "I'm HERE! I'M BEING CHASED! YOUR QUEEN IS IN DANGER, YOU WORTHLESS SOBS!"
Why wouldn't they answer? Why couldn't they hear her? What did that worthless ape do to me? It must have been another one of the dead skin's tricks. Something to shut her off. To throw a shroud around her mind. It was almost unthinkable. Without the Collective, what was she? Who was she? Was she even a dragon? Was she even alive?
It wants my fire. The thought came to her suddenly and like a kick to the gut. No. No, no, no. No! Take my life, please, but leave my fire! The queen scrabbled up the rocks with painstaking slowness, wishing she could fly. The dead skin was getting closer; she could hear the steady slap, thud of its encroaching footsteps.
Maybe she could kill herself. End her physical life, save her eternal one. Can't let the dead skin get my fire. Can't let it in the Collective. Her sons and daughter wouldn't have to know. Her children, her precious heirs. They could have a life without her. She'd already picked out names: Rose, Achille, Pike.
The queen let her claws slip off the stone, savoring her last taste of the night's cooled air, and thought with regret of her children, of her kingdom. She hit the ground.
At first, she felt nothing, nothing but heaviness and a crookedness in her bones she didn't understand. She waited for darkness. And waited. And waited. Through the sepia haze clotting her vision, she saw the dead skin's pale, thin body coming through the trees. Her heart sank. I did it wrong. It's almost here.
The last thing she saw was the dead skin's wide, hateful eyes peering down at her, a green-tipped spear held high in his hand, before the world turned gray. Something was happening to her body, something far away, something she couldn't see or hear or feel. But her mind was still intact. Am I going to paradise? What is this place? It's so cold... it's so busy... what is this? Who's talking? Who's thinking?
Her mind was not her own. She was just a passenger now, sitting somewhere in a dark and invisible cave, waiting helplessly to be dissolved. She tried to cry; she had no mouth. She wanted very badly to scream.
Looking down at the dragon's corpse, Liam felt strong. Like a man. Father always said he'd never be able to do it, but here he was standing in front of a dragon's corpse with his bare toes growing sticky from its blood. He raised his ivory knife and cut a sliver of scales and flesh from between the shoulder muscle the wing joint, dug in with his bare hands, and extracted dragon's fire stone.
It felt light in his palm, hardly bigger than an ordinary pebble, but he could feel the power in it. It caught the sun, shining through the red veins inside; something in its center pulsed steadily. Liam raised the knife again, this time to his own flesh, and stopped.
He hadn't thought of the stories since he was a boy, but he remembered them now. Father would scold him if he knew what he was thinking. Don't be a baby. He shook his head. Scared of ghost stories.
Men who steal fire stones become deranged, mad, haunted by vengeful spirits. On the fifth day, their skin turns red, red like fire... their eyes turn black... and on the 13th, they forget their names...
Proposterous. Two men in the tribe had fire stones, and they were fine. Unless they're lying. Gods! Liam felt the spot between his shoulders and raised the blade again. No one would lie about that. They had the scars, too, didn't they? Yes. Liam would be fine. Liam would be great. He'd return to town a warlock, a hero. His father would bow. His mother would cry.
He hardly felt the blade at all. He peeled back the flap, set the fire stone inside, dropped it, and finally wedged it in. Have to cauterize it. That Liam felt, red hot and sharp--my first taste of the dragon's curse?
He'd stowed Isabelle a few miles north. He left the corpse unburied. When he glanced back, it seemed the white veined ivy was creeping over it already, curling around its horns with greedy fingers. A jackdaw cried; otherwise the forest was eerily quiet. He stepped lightly through the trees, waiting for the birds and squirrels to return to them.
The queen was dead.
All around the Kingdom of Schorl, dragons covered their scales in mud, swallowed ice, and turned away from the sun. The nursemaids took the heirs from their nest of coals and laid them under the thatched roof of the hatching place. They would have to be ready. One of them was about to become king or queen of Schorl.
The stokers replaced the nursemaids. Seven dragons, one for each of the guiding stars (and one from each clan), flamed the eggs for three days and nights without sleeping or stopping. They did not flag; the Collective held them, chanting the birth song on endless loop. Servants fed them morning glories and pyrite or dripped moon water into their mouths.
The fourth day rose mournful gray. The castle was a shadow against the blanketed sky. A hundred dragons stood and waited. Which would hatch first? Would the stokers keep the names their mother chose, or give them names of mourning?
It was the smallest, palest egg that cracked first. A tiny egg tooth burst up through the red tint of black shell, trailing strings of vicious fluid, and a dragonling emerged. He was red with black beneath his wings.
"ARROW," the nursemaids and stokers cried. "Infant king of the Schorl wyrms."
But something was wrong. The infant's wide eyes looked crooked, and its language—what was it saying?—its language was foreign. They waited for the other heirs; maybe this one was defective. But even after hours, they did not break. They were dead. Arrow was their king.
Liam's father was proud. His son had done the one thing he couldn't do himself. The years of mind games had finally paid off. Chief didn't regret any of it; not making his son feel worthless, not the dragon's death, not even what would come next. He only wished it could be him, but that was foolishness. It had to be a child.
"My son," Chief said, throwing his arms around the boy's shoulders. "You have shown great strength, courage, and wisdom. From this day, you will be known as Liam Dragonslayer, son of Hiram Fateweaver. May the gods give you wings."
The boy was obviously trying not to cry. Foolish, foolish boy. Did it hurt yet? When would dragon fire destroy his skin? There'll be time before that, Hiram.
He and the tribe's elders met after Liam's naming ceremony. They stood around the fire, half naked to let the moonlight touch their skin, and watched the young boys play between the low clay and mud houses Liam had helped raise himself. It was a clear night, the sky a dark, solid blue, and the rooftops silver.
"The boy didn't talk much," Man-of-the-Wind said.
"We were hoping to learn what he'd seen and heard by now," Lootfinder said.
"Don't worry." Hiram tore his eyes from the frolicking children. "He's told me already about the dragon child he displaced. It seems to be the alpha of the pack, perhaps to replace the one he killed. The boy can't understand the dragon's language; I'm afraid they know something is wrong, but they're only animals. They can't possibly understand what we're doing. They have no hope to stop us."
"Have we decided?" Hiram asked. "Shall we cast lots?"
"No. We'll remove the stone before the 13th day and give it to the next host. There's a hundred dragons in the black castle. We'll have to partner with the other tribes. But they are willing."
"The gods have been kind to us, Fateweaver. No more losing children every year when the fish freeze in their streams and the dragons become hungry. No more hiding our infants in caves. No more."
"This is the year of man. The dragons have fallen. All dragon minds replaced by human. The deadskins rule. When their skin turns charcoal and their names dissolve, they move to their dragon skin. Long live the Collective."
A dragonling hatched from its egg. He looked around; he was alone. Some old instinct told him to call out, to feel for the warm thoughts of his mother's and brother's and sister's, but all he could hear was silence. Where was he? Where was his mom? Why did he feel so cold?
He felt with his mind for something familiar. He called out. No one answered. Wait: oh! There they were. No. They were all quiet, all moving slow and strange. Were they sick?
"Mother?" One of the dragons turned and fixed the dragonling with dead black eyes.
"How did it get past us?"
"Get it! Get its fire stone!"
"I'll get him. Come here, little devil."
The dragon tried to run, but they were on him. His legs were too small. He called out, but still the dragons wouldn't answer. All he heard was static. He was alone. And they were almost upon him.