An Incremented Dragon’s Tale Inspired by the Art of SamJFraser
There was no need to count the number of paces. Their path was already trodden, ten thousand times over. Every footprint was visible, as they went deep into the dirt. Mother and daughter moved through easily enough, even in the seventh day of their journey, because their booted feet fit perfectly into the prints of old.
The straggler had a harder time, given its small reptilian feet with four curving claws. It wasn’t old enough to use its wings properly, but they were bound behind its back anyway, tied tightly with a leather strap and a metal clasp. It was forced to hop from print to print, stumbling every once in a while and smashing its snout into the ground.
The girl heard the animal’s efforts, but any time she turned to look her mother grabbed her by the ear and pulled her forward. They still had a day ahead of them before they reached the Measuring Sticks and got this whole mess behind them. People already thought their family name, Airgast, wasn’t worth much, and the hissing coiling beast her daughter had attached herself to wasn’t helping the matter.
“I told you before,” Ralloween Airgastr scolded her daughter, “you’re not to look in its eyes anymore. Surely you can wait the one day for the monster’s judgement.” She was a bitter woman, having lost her husband to the slings and arrows of a petty tax-based conflict. He’d suffered and died for a literal pittance. She could’ve marked his grave with exact decimal value of the cents he’d saved their kingdom.
The girl did not argue, not yet. She would save her words for the monster as well. Instead she stared at her mother, wondering if it was possible to avoid looking like her one day. She didn’t want any of that brittle yellow straw she called hair. She didn’t want the frown lines. There was one way. She could go out and get a dozen scars, obscure her age with experience. Each one would make her less of an Airgast. Perhaps one day she could just drop the surname, have it chopped off in battle like a lizard’s tail, and just be known as Quillin.
Her new pet didn’t need a surname, and soon their lives would be inseparable, if the monster allowed it. She had found it, barely more than a worm, eight months ago. Out to fetch water, she’d turned over a stone at the sight of the yellow glow underneath and found its wriggling form. Dragons, when newly hatched, had no limbs, and the skin of their eyes was sealed tight. The only way they could see was by coughing tiny puffs of flame and examining what it illuminated through their translucent eyelids.
That was the glow Quillin had seen. She picked it up gently. The newborn wasn’t even aware it was being held, but it liked the sudden warmth of her palm, curling up inside it and napping. She brought it home, named it Cough, and then decided it was a boy. So the dragon stopped being an it and became a he.
Hiding Cough became more difficult as time wore on. In his third month he sprouted legs and learned how to escape the wet grass-filled bucket she’d kept him in. He’d found his way to the dinner table, which she hadn’t cleaned yet, and gnawed on the rooster bones from their evening meal.
Cough had bitten her when she grabbed him and ran him back to her room. He swallowed a drop of her blood, which caused their initial connection. In that moment Quillin should have panicked. The sounds of her mother rummaging through the kitchen were just past the closed door. She had two puncture wounds on her right thumb that dripped blood aggressively. There was a fledgling dragon licking its red lips and then running the side of its snout across her bed sheets, staining them.
However, she was calm. She couldn’t even find the pain she’d felt moments before. It had run off somewhere, into the tall grass of her soul. In fact, that grass was clear to her. It was less of an approximation than it used to be. Her spirit definitely had tall grass in it, and it grew taller by the moment, so her humanity could fully hide the beast now skulking about.
Cough’s eyes were barely open, but after his sip of blood the last skin of infancy tore away. They mad eye contact and saw straight to the bottom of the other’s spirit: the roots of that tall grass. If Ralloween had walked in on them at that moment, their connection would’ve been destroyed. Her mother would’ve grabbed the nearest shovel and chopped the young dragon into ten pieces.
They were not disturbed. They had time to comprehend their new connection. Quillin knew the stories. Mankind was its own animal, alone in clothing, building, and politics, but there were beasts smart enough, soulful enough to connect with them. There were knights that could ride griffins, kings and queens guarded by two-headed giant bears, and sea serpents that would tow their friends across entire oceans.
With one drop of blood they’d made such a connection. They were the best of friends. They both saw adventures in their future: clashes of armor, weaponry, and ideology. They had to get to that future though. They had to grow up together first, bond further, and there were plenty who would do everything in their power to stop that from happening.
Eventually Cough had been found out, when he was about the size of a dog, and the two of them were pelted with stones until they were outside the village’s borders. A furious Ralloween found them hours later, cowering in a dead tree, licking their wounds. Her expression suggested she watched them lick each other’s wounds.
Ralloween had fought alongside her husband in the war of the bloody pennies, so she had no trouble subduing such a young dragon and binding its wings. She was going to kill it, was poised over it with an axe, when Quillin threw herself between the two.
“You must not!” She squealed, tears suddenly flowing. “Cough is my only friend! Now that we’ve been banished I may never have another! Mother! Stop!” They fought like animals, the way parents and children never should. They rolled across the ground, biting and scratching, screaming at each other. Cough was trapped in the middle, suppressing the fire their tumbling bodies nearly squeezed out of him.
It took hours, but a conclusion was reached. Quillin’s dragon would remain, unless Ralloween could prove its evil. Her mother would need more than the stories of burned villages and devoured maidens.
After the fight, Ralloween didn’t have the energy to strike her daughter over her blasphemies. Of all the animals, she had to bring back a scaled worm from the age of giants and skies that rained fire. Ralloween would not let her make such a terrible decision. She would not lose her daughter to the wiles of a snapping dragon. They would go to the Measuring Sticks instead, and she would prove how nasty its little soul was.
The Measuring Sticks
They arrived at their desired column after an uneasy night. The Measuring Sticks were the remnants a forging god’s toolbox. They provided the scales to judge anything and everything under that god’s now-dead eyes. As such, most life avoided them at all costs, to avoid judgment. There were no plants, no animals.
The glassy gray-white ground was interrupted only by the sticks themselves: rectangular columns jutting upward at various angles, where they had struck the Earth centuries ago. Ralloween knew exactly which one to find: the Meter of Monsters. It could tell, perfectly, exactly how cruel, vicious, and selfish her daughter’s dragon would eventually become. Life was just patterns, emotions rising and falling with the sag of skin and the crack of bones, and Cough was no exception to his kind.
The three of them stopped under the Meter of Monsters. Cough dropped to his side and wheezed after the difficult journey. He didn’t even notice the imposing creature perched atop the meter. The humans noticed, and the elder was not pleased.
“You?” Ralloween shouted up at the beast. “Another dragon? After all this, another dragon? I thought there was a phoenix atop the Meter of Monsters.” The new dragon angled his head down and blinked his eyes sleepily. He half-dropped and half-slithered down the length of the meter, past the rainbow of colors and pictograms on each of its perfect increments.
He was a dragon, but he was quite different from the tiny Cough. He was large enough to swallow the human whole, and his face was decorated by strange barbels that hung off the sides of his nostrils. Those whiskers of flesh waved back and forth like seaweed in a deep slow current. His snaking body wound around the Meter of Monsters until his head was feet from their chests.
“There was a phoenix,” the dragon told them, shocking Quillin with his perfect, if guttural, human speech. “She was delicious. Only the mightiest monster gets to top the meter, gets to judge the others. For now that is I. I am Ruuld: indefatigable of wing, infinite in wisdom, and immune to all venom. What do you seek from the Meter of Monsters?”
Ralloween stepped forward, pulling her daughter behind her. She didn’t bother to free Cough’s wings; the dragon was still weak, his serpentine body hanging low across a giant footprint. Quillin looked past the bigger dragon’s eyes, she only cared for one monster’s soul, and examined the meter. It was broken up into seven sections of different colors, with white on the bottom and crimson at the top.
In each section she saw depictions of monsters; they grew more sinister in form and face as they rose up the meter. Those at the bottom had the noble manes and perfect posture of library-guarding lions, while those at the top had more fire in their coats than fur, more poison in their veins than blood. She wondered, honestly, where Cough’s soul would fit. At first she thought she didn’t care, but the sight of the crimson monsters filled her with doubt.
“My daughter is an idiot,” Ralloween told Ruuld. “She has formed a bond with that vermin back there.” Ruuld spared a glance for the wheezing dragon. If he had any sympathy for his own kind, it did not show. “We need to know how black the animal’s soul is. Once she sees that it can do no good, that a life by its side will fill her other side with spears and screams, she will separate from it. What do we owe you in exchange for your services Ruuld?”
The elder dragon did not answer immediately. He instead extended his head and snaking neck between the humans and towards Cough. The young dragon finally rose on his legs. Ruuld, with the tiniest edge of one tooth, sliced the leather strap away, allowing him to spread his young green wings. He could not yet fly, a fact Ruuld carefully observed.
One of the dragon’s whiskers curled and touched Cough’s side. It followed the contour of his body exactly, as if glued to it. Stripes of colors appeared across it and shifted. Quillin could feel Cough’s heartbeat, frighteningly rapid. She clutched her own chest while her mother was distracted by Ruuld’s technique.
When the elder dragon was finished he brought his colorful whisker up to the humans and draped it across their hands. Quillin stared into it, immediately aware of what she saw. The flow of the colors… their tiniest movements… this was an artistic rendering of Cough’s soul. No, not artistic. It was just the technical language of emotions and their colors, a deep logic even humans couldn’t reach most of the time. Somehow this dragon knew it, somehow he spoke the words of the measuring sticks and all their myriad units.
“Here is your answer, in part,” Ruuld said of the colors across his barbel.
“What does this mean?” Ralloween asked. “And do I have to touch it any longer?” The dragon pulled it out of her hands so fast that she recoiled and yelped. Quillin had to stifle a giggle. She still held her section, even thicker and heavier than the end her mother had been given.
“Is your daughter really the more patient of the two?” he asked her mother. Ralloween cast her eyes down and told the dragon to please continue. “There is much to read, even though little Cough here is a thin book.” Quillin knew her pet was too terrified to protest. “Look here.” Ruuld’s snout touched a long blue section of the barbel. Then the dragon slithered back up the meter and let his claws rest on the blue section.
“Blue is goodness,” Quillin said without needing an explanation. “And he has so much! Doesn’t he Ruuld?”
“Yes,” the dragon answered. Quillin beamed, but her joy was short-lived. “This is not monster goodness though. It is human.” The blue sections of his barbel lined up with the meter. His irises flashed blue, and the color faded. “He got it from you. From your blood. It could grow inside him, an infectious piece of human soul, or he could absorb it and accept his true dragon nature.”
“So which is it?” Ralloween asked, taking a slightly more respectful tone. Quillin could see by the quivering in her mother’s throat that she’d been reminded of what a true dragon was capable of. There really wasn’t anything stopping Ruuld from making a meal of them, though that might tarnish his image as the figurehead of the Meter of Monsters.
“The measurement is not complete,” Ruuld said, curling up at the top of the meter once more. He looked ready for a nap. “I must measure again tomorrow, see if the goodness has grown or shrunk. From there I can discern the rate, and eventual fate, of little Cough.” The dragon closed his eyes, dismissing them.
They were forced to make camp among the Measuring Sticks, though they chose the shadow of one far from Ruuld, in case he fed at night when he wasn’t pretending to be civilized. The stick they stayed under when darkness came appeared to measure the anger of the gods. There wasn’t a soul attending it, but there was a golden indicator piece moving up and down its colors. Apparently the mood of the gods was quite volatile. They would have to sleep with the sound of it scraping back and forth across the stone.
Only Ralloween slept. Before she did, but after they’d shared their miserable dinner of crusty bread and sour berries plucked from the edge of the last forest, she made her daughter swear not to interfere. They had clasped hands, making it a real promise.
She wasn’t worried her daughter would break it, because deep within Quillin there was still love for her family. Besides, any shady act could tarnish the goodness the parasitic dragon had borrowed from her and hurt his chances.
While her mother slept, Quillin and Cough struck out on their own to explore the Measuring Sticks in the darkness. They had no lantern, but Cough’s breath gave them enough light to see each column by. They tried to find something to laugh or smile about, but everything was just too barren. They stood on either side of one of the Sticks, guessing that it tracked the weather a continent away, and examined it. A moment later they gave up trying to make sense of it and bobbed their heads back and forth, trying to spot each other around it.
“Mother doesn’t understand it, but we do,” Quillin said. She caught a glimpse of Cough’s head, his adorable green eyes sparkling. He nodded enthusiastically. “It doesn’t matter how right this place is, how precisely everything is measured. It’s all dead. You have go out of your way, out of the real world, just to get here and see what number you deserve.”
She bolted away and hid behind another stick. She held he breath and waited. There came the sound of Cough floundering, trying to take to the air on immature wings. He wanted to search for her from the sky, but it wasn’t time yet. Somewhere there was a Measuring Stick that could tell him exactly when he would mature, exactly when he would be aged, and exactly when he would die. Neither of them wanted to know.
Quillin stepped out with a smile, planning to tell him to relax, but he tumbled right into her, tangled up in his own wings. The two of them rolled down a slight incline, between an arch of crossed sticks, and landed in a depression filled with sand.
Finally, they laughed. The tumble had forced it out of them. They had a moment free of all the judgments, where it was just their friendship and the empty night sky. Eventually their situation returned and tempered their joy. They looked around and found there was one stick in the sand. In fact, it made a slight sound as it shifted in the ground.
“Wait a minute…” Quillin said. She crawled over to the base of the stick and started digging. Cough didn’t know what she was getting at, but digging was just as fun as anything else, so his claws joined her. They dug straight down, along the stick’s edge, for more than a minute. There was another color there. Another piece of the meter. Did anyone know? The dead god that dropped it likely didn’t. Nobody else seemed to be digging up the sticks. Quillin and Cough slowly returned to the campsite. They bundled up together with a blanket and waited. It was cozy, but the excitement kept them awake.
Ralloween awoke alone. There was a bolt of fear down her back, but then she spotted her daughter waving to her in the distance, the obnoxious dragon weaving between her legs, practically tripping her. They were over by the Meter of Monsters. Even from that distance she looked pleased. How could she be so confident in the little beast?
Ralloween joined them at the base of the meter and they called to Ruuld. He only stirred on the third and loudest. While he slowly made his way down, Ralloween couldn’t help but picture her daughter’s life in ten years if she stayed with such a creature. She saw a bent witch at the back of a cave, gnawing on bones and brewing potions from various swamp slimes. The dragon would drag her down; that was likely where the name had come from in the first place!
“Present yourself Cough,” the elder dragon ordered, “it is time for your second measurement.” The dragon bounded forward, proudly displaying his little wings even though they were useless. Ruuld laughed at the sight, a strange sound like bubbles bursting at the bottom of a cauldron. “So excited. You’ll tire of flight eventually young one, and go looking for a post like mine.”
“I don’t mean to rush you,” Ralloween interrupted, “but we humans are not comfortable here. Could you please give us our answer?” The dragon turned to her with a barely perceptible air of irritation, but then nodded. He brought forth the same barbel as before and used it to trace the side of Cough’s body. The colors appeared and shifted. Ruuld’s lips moved back and forth as he mulled the results.
When he was finished he crawled back up the meter and placed the blue section of his whisker up against the matching increment. The shade was identical. Quillin and Cough already knew what was coming. They knew better than anyone because they hadn’t simply accepted the veracity of the Measuring Sticks.
“The goodness in the dragon has clearly shrunk,’ Ruuld ruled. The colors faded.
“Hah!” Ralloween chirped. “You see? He’ll never be anything more than a predator. He’ll use you for your thumbs and literacy. Force you to brew potions to make him stronger… He’ll… he’ll ruin… why are you smiling?”
“While we were having fun…” Quillin said, “Nay! Because we had fun, we found something.” She turned to Ruuld. “We have one more request. Could you please use your wings and your strength… to pull the Meter of Monsters from the ground.” Ruuld’s expression darkened. His barbels went limp even as his wing muscles tensed.
“The Meter of Monsters is infallible,” the dragon growled. He could take something seriously. His eyes were free of sleep for the first time since they’d met.
“Perhaps, but you’re not looking at the whole thing!” Quillin protested. “All of these sticks… there’s more to them under the ground! You’ve been working with half the information! Passing judgment on incomplete pictures.” The dragon stared back. One claw raked across the top of the meter, pulling dust. “And… and you knew!” The girl and her dragon stepped back with the realization.
She turned to her mother and saw a strangely similar expression. Ralloween pulled out her axe, eyes darting towards Cough, who hid behind Quillin’s leg.
“You knew as well?” she asked her mother. Ruuld descended and coiled behind them, teeth looking very sharp. Between her mother, the dragon, and the meter, they had no avenue of escape. “Why? Why even listen to these things when you can’t see the other side of them?
“Those are rules for the gods,” Ralloween explained, her tone turning into a plea. “We’re not meant to see all of it. What shows is what we go by. It tells us that dragon will doom you.”
“Yes. Doom you, by human standards,” Ruuld agreed. “Now there’s the matter of you questioning my authority.” Ruuld stalked forward, but stopped suddenly. He seemed to feel a tickle. His barbel moved up to his eye, and the tip of it flashed blue. “Oh. His wings are ready.”
Cough suddenly grabbed Quillin by the shoulders and launched both of them into the air. Her mother called after her, threw the axe up, and scrambled out of its way when it came back down. The toss severed the last connection to her family. Quillin would not abide such stupidity; she didn’t care if she lived in a realm that could only be measured properly by hidden rules.
Ruuld did not follow. His wings no longer had the power; he’d invested too much time in his roost.
“Let’s go Cough. Let’s pull these out one by one and carry them all over the world. Let’s show everybody how to really know things. Let’s show them that no judgments stand permanently!” The girl and her dragon flew off in search of things to expose.
Author’s Note: This flash fiction story was written based on a picture prompt provided by SamJFrazer. I hereby transfer all story rights to him, with the caveat that it remain posted on this blog. If you would like your own story, stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade during one of my streams and I’ll write it for you live!