Born of Fire

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Several years after my first post, I’ve dusted off my old blog. As I originally promised, I’m posting a short story. This is a little sci-fi fantasy piece that I’ve had laying around for awhile.

I stopped blogging for a while, but I never stopped writing, and I’ve got something big coming down the pipe. So stay tuned.

Enjoy!

-Matt

Born of Fire

By Matt Kincade

In the waning of the fourth moon of autumn, Prince Valen of the Western Lands, mounted upon his coal-black steed, arrived at the fortress of the Armorer’s Guild.

Valen was dressed in a red tunic bearing his family crest, over gleaming chain mail. His straight golden hair, which came down to his collar, was tucked behind his ears. A finely-wrought sword hung at his side.

The black walls of the fortress rose up even above the towering pines of the great forest.He craned his head back as he rode up to the edge of the wide, murky moat, spying the tiny figures that were visible, looking down at him, from the battlements. Before he could cry out to announce himself, the great drawbridge began to lower. Soon thereafter, the iron portcullis gate raised up. Valen spurred his horse and rode into the Armorer’s keep.

Guild stewards, dressed in their green cloth tunics, met him just inside the gate as the portcullis lowered again behind him. They helped the prince from his horse, offered him refreshments—which he refused—and bade him follow. He walked after them down the dark stone hallways of the fortress, past Guild sentries standing at attention in chain mail, their flintlock rifles held at shoulder arms. The place echoed with ring of hammers upon metal, the hiss of squelching steel, the chug of the ancient engines. Sparks rained from a doorway as Valen passed, bouncing off of the Prince’s leather boots.

Valen followed the steward down a series of long stone hallways, past a guarded iron gate, and up a spiral staircase to the great guild hall. He found himself at the center of a circular room, lined at its perimeter with raised and inward facing benches. From behind these perches, a dozen Guild Masters peered down at him from within their hooded robes. Afternoon sunlight filtered in through the high windows, casting the Master’s faces in deep shadow.

The eldest of the Guild Masters spoke in a voice rickety with age. “Prince Valen, son of Jon, heir to the throne of the Western Lands, do you know why you have been summoned this day?”

Prince Valen bowed in the western fashion. “I do, my lords,” A prince of the Western Lands need bow to no one, but the favor of the armorer’s guild outweighed such considerations. “I have been chosen to undertake a quest.”

“That is correct.” said the old man.

“Yet none have revealed to me the nature of this quest.”

The Guild Master smiled. “Ah, young prince. You are indeed lucky. You have been chosen to fulfill a great task, a task for which all great heroes wish. You are to slay a dragon.”

Valen’s eyes grew wide. “A dragon? In truth? I’d thought such to be tall tales only.”

The old man nodded. “Such things do exist. There is one not four weeks ride from here, in a canyon high in the Ricar mountains. He is a great and terrible beast. The local villagers attempt to placate him with virgins, but these he rends apart, then destroys their villages all the same. He leaves a trail of carnage and slaughter in his wake. Heroes have come from all points of the compass to vanquish the beast, and all have fallen. But this scourge has not yet faced a hero such as yourself.”

“I will not fail,” said Prince Valen. “The beast shall fall before my blade.”

“Marvelous,” said the old man. “The beast guards within his valley a great treasure. Secure this treasure so that the guild may claim it, and you will earn a worthy reward indeed. And forever after, the Armorer’s Guild shall look with special favor upon your kingdom.”

The prince bowed again.

“Of course, we will see to it that you do not face the beast unprepared. We shall appoint you for your mission. Should you succeed, these weapons will be yours.” He snapped his fingers. Shortly, two guild stewards appeared, each pushing a wooden barrow across the stone floor, their cargo covered with cloth.

The Guild Master eased down off of his tall chair and went to the first barrow. “As you know, we of the Armorer’s Guild have a few specimens of the old weapons.”

“All have heard such rumors.”

“Not rumors. Look here.” The Guild Master pulled the cloth off of the first barrow. Within was a jumble of metal parts. The old man pulled from the pile a gauntlet, made of a dull, gray metal. He handed it to Valen. “This is the armor of the ancient sky kings,” he said, as the prince turned the gauntlet in the light. “It will defeat any weapon known to modern war, save perhaps a lucky trebuchet or a ballista. As well, it gives the wearer the strength and endurance of ten men.”

Valen examined the cunning with which the gauntlet had been crafted, the clever hinges at each knuckle, the articulation of the thumb. “The skill of the ancient smiths…” he breathed.

“Yes, yes, and they farted lightning bolts.” The old man held what appeared to be a pair of metal boots. He set these boots on the floor and bade Valen step into them. This the prince did, and was greatly surprised when the steel—if steel it was— of its own accord tightened snugly around his ankles, then let out a sound like a bird’s whistle. Valen cried out and tried to jump away, but the boots only came with him. The Guild Master laughed. He pulled more pieces of armor out of the barrow and handed them to the prince. The Prince saw they were meant to fit over knees and thighs. He placed them on his body and they, too, attached themselves by the strange magicks of the ancients. They sealed to the boots so tightly, a knife blade wouldn’t fit in the gap. And so it went, from gauntlets to greaves, breastplate to backplate to codpiece. Soon, Valen was fully encased in the magick armor of the sky-kings.

Finally came the helmet. Valen lowered the contraption over his head. He heard a hiss, and then another whistle. A woman’s voice spoke to him then, with a strange accent. “Bear Industries combat armor Mark Five is now active,” she said, “power cells at thirty-two percent. Circuit faults detected at junctions five through thirteen. Left knee servo in need of maintenance. Auxiliary weapons not detected. This unit is not recommended for combat use at this time.”

“Sorcery,” breathed Valen, as he peered out through the helmet’s glass visor.

“Indeed,” said the Guild Master. “The ancient magicks were great. There is much we do not understand. But these pieces still serve us well enough.”

Valen reached out with his gauntleted hand and gripped wooden handle of the barrow. “Incredible!” he said, “I can feel the wood as if I weren’t wearing a gauntlet at all! What sort of sorcery—” he stopped, as the heavy oaken handle splintered in his hand.

“Restraint, young prince,” said the old man, “as I said, the suit gives you strength of ten men. You must be careful. All the more so with this next bauble.” He reached into the next barrow and pulled free what vaguely resembled a sword. It had a handle and quillions, but when he pulled it from its sheath it had a slender, blunt piece of metal in place of a blade.

“A poor sort of sword,” Valen remarked.

The Guild Master laughed. “See here, the button on the handle?” he said, “This summons the magick.” He hit the button and there came from the sword a low hum. The blade flickered before the Prince’s eyes. “Have you seen a band saw?”

Fascinated, Prince Valen stared at the blade. It seemed to vibrate, like the air on a hot day. “Aye, at the mill. I know of such things.”

“The Ancients swords were much the same. See how it shimmers? That’s the band, moving faster than even our eyes may see. It is a liquid, molded by the ancient magicks into the shape of tiny, tiny saw teeth. It spins faster, much faster than any millsaw. This is perhaps the only thing on this planet which could pierce the armor you now wear.”

The prince’s eyes widened. “Truly? Will it cut through stone?”

The Guild Master sighed. “Young prince, this will cut through anything. You must use this with only the utmost caution. Never touch the blade. Even a moment of carelessness can cost a limb, or worse.” The Guild Master hit the switch again, and the humming stopped. The blade fell still. He slid the sword into a sheath and handed it to Valen. “Use it well.”

“I thank you,” said the Prince.

“And lastly,” the hooded old man continued, “the most powerful weapon.” He produced a long metal pole the size of a spear, but with a curious goblet shaped device in place of a spearhead. “Point this end at your enemy, and push the button, here. From the dish end will emerge the very fires of the gods. Use this only in the most dire circumstances, when all other weapons have failed you. It is your last resort. With these armaments, there are none in the land that may stand before you.”

***

Encased in his fine new armor, his enchanted sword strapped at his side, Prince Valen mounted his steed at the fortress gate. He sat tall in the saddle, holding the Fire-lance skyward.

The Guild Masters gathered around him. “We have chosen our champion wisely. God speed you, my prince, to your victory.”

“I shall not fail.”

The portcullis gate of the Guild fortress rattled upwards, and the great drawbridge rattled down. Valen rode out from within. He glanced back over his shoulder at the towering black walls of the fortress, just as the drawbridge shut once more.

The black fortress disappeared from sight and the forest closed in around Valen. The prince dismounted and hitched his horse to a tree. Flexing his hands within his magick gauntlets, he approached a great granite boulder and seized it in both hands. Effortlessly, he lifted it over his head and tossed it across a meadow. He swung his fist at another boulder and it split in twain. “By the Gods.” He breathed, looking down at his metal encased hands.

The young prince then drew his new sword. He depressed the button on the handle, and the blade hummed to life. It pulled slightly in his hands, like the strange force which keeps a child’s top upright while spinning. He swung the blade through the air a few times, admiring the way the blade hummed and seemed to throb. With a yell, he swung at a gnarled, ancient elm tree. The blade cut through so easily that the prince’s momentum carried him around nearly in a full circle. The tree slid and twisted off its stump and crashed to the ground. Valen, still surprised by the ease of the cut, wasn’t fast enough to avoid a bough as thick as his horse’s neck. Yet the blow that should have killed him merely knocked him to the ground. He stood up, laughed madly, and cut down several more trees for good measure.

Valen sheathed the wondrous sword, and then retrieved the fire lance from his pack-saddle. He ran his fingers admiringly over the weapon, the strange engravings and decorations running down its haft. Valen pointed the goblet shaped head of the thing towards the forest. His thumb hovered over the trigger. And yet, the old man’s words came back to him: “Use this only in your most dire need, when all other weapons have failed you.” After a moment’s pause, Valen took his thumb away from the trigger. He sighed and replaced the weapon into his baggage.

***

The road wound on for weeks. Prince Valen rode through lands foreign to him, past people with strange customs and strange accents. Still, as in his own lands, they grew wheat and corn and rice, fields of which stretched across the great valley as far as the eye could see. And beyond them all, the jagged, snowcapped peaks of the Ricar mountains.

The villagers were friendly enough, though from hospitality or fear, Valen was never sure. They gave him food and water and strong drink, listened to his tale and guided him on his way, casting veiled and fearful glances at his ancient armaments.

The valley soon gave way to foothills and oak forest, then to pines and jagged rock. At last he came to the lair of the dragon.

The mouth of the canyon was easy enough to find. He simply followed the bodies. Broken skeletons and rusting armor littered the trail leading up to the narrow pass. In places, drifts of bones lay knee deep across the trail, and snapped beneath the hooves of his steed. Among the bones were fresher bodies, thick with flies, dead hands still grasping their swords and shields.

Valen lowered the glass visor on his strange armor and rode on. Reaching the top of the pass, he looked down into a steep valley, lined at the bottom with a grassy meadow and a few tufts of trees. A stream meandered through the grass of the meadow, forming a chain of small pools.

His horse pawed impatiently at the hard packed trail. Valen called out, “Dragon! Show yourself! I have come to do battle!”

A deep, rumbling voice boomed from above. “Well then, this is something different.”

Valen’s horse reared back in terror, and only the prince’s skill as a rider saved him from tumbling out of his saddle. He pulled on the reins and brought the skittering horse under control, even as he looked up towards the sound of the voice.

High up on the cliff-top, a giant demon’s face peered down. Two great eyes the size of pie plates, slitted like a cat’s, regarded the young prince. The dragon’s face was somewhat like a dog, yet sheathed, as was the rest of its body, in gleaming, pointed scales, like a coat of knives. Its dagger-filled mouth was large enough to swallow the prince’s horse in two bites.

The dragon growled, “Powered armor, nanoblade, and a plasma lance. You come well-armed, for a warrior of this age.”

Valen sat tall in the saddle, unafraid, as befitted a prince. “I have been given these enchanted weapons to defeat you, foul beast.”

The dragon snorted. “Enchanted. Given by whom?”

“The Khalar Armorer’s Guild.”

“Ah, yes,” The dragon’s eyes narrowed. “The guild. So they’ve decided to make another try at it. They must be getting desperate, to give weapons such as those to one such as you.”

“One such as I?” the prince cried, “I am a great warrior, of royal blood! I slew general Kaveet with my own hands, at the Battle of Broken Shields. I bested Novan-Durm, greatest warrior of the Northern Tribes, in single combat!”

The dragon shifted its great bulk upon the cliff-top. The prince saw then the rest of the thing’s body, all armored in those scales that shown like polished steel, glinting in the sunlight. The Dragon had a shape rather like a salamander or a lizard, only far, far larger, as long as a carriage and a ten-horse team. Pebbles rained down as the creature readjusted itself. “Of course, of course. Far be it from me to question your martial prowess. Tell me, young prince, are you trained in mind as well as body?”

“I have been tutored by the greatest philosophers in the Western Lands.”

“Then let us converse. Pray tell, why have the Armorers sent you to kill me?”

The prince laughed haughtily. “As if you need ask. You are a plague upon the land! You kill livestock and terrorize villages, you eat virgin sacrifices! You are a monster.”

The monster in question waved a hand dismissively. “Of course, of course. I could dispute all of those claims, of course, but instead I pose a simple question. Other than sending you upon this quest, when have you ever known the Armorer’s Guild to be in any way noble, altruistic, or concerned with the common good?”

Prince Valen cocked his head. “Perhaps never,” he said, after a pause.

“Yes, perhaps never. Perhaps just the opposite. Perhaps they hide in their fortress and stamp out swords and armor to sell to anyone with the coin. Perhaps their agents travel the countryside fomenting strife, so as to incite and prolong wars, all to increase their profits. Perhaps none dare defy them, for fear of being cut off from their supply of weapons, or that their enemies may be given some technological advantage.”

“There may be some truth in that.”

“Yes, so there may. So tell me, why would The Guild suddenly be interested in a rogue dragon eating a few sheep? Or even a few virgins, for that matter?”

The prince didn’t have an answer. His horse shied once more, and he brought the animal under control.

“I’ll tell you what they desire. Every dragon, it is said, has treasure. It is my treasure, and my treasure only, that concerns the guild.”

“They did mention your treasure.”

The dragon purred, “Would you like to see it? It may not be what you were expecting.”

Valen’s eyes narrowed. He put his hand on the hilt of his sword. “The guild warned me you would try to confound me with tricks and soothing words.”

“No tricks,” the dragon said, “if I had a mind to, I could have crushed you and your horse with a boulder the minute you entered the pass. I doubt even your powered combat armor could survive that unscathed.” The great beast disappeared from the cliff-top, and moments later reappeared in the valley, a few hundred feet farther on. “Come on then.” he said.

After a pause, Valen gave spur to his horse and followed the dragon down to the valley floor. The sunlight glistened off the dragon’s scales like the ripples of a stream as the creature lumbered down the trail. It’s body was distended and lumped, its tail tapering down to a wicked, shining point.

The Dragon slid around a rock outcropping and was lost from sight. When Valen rounded the same rock outcrop, he found the dragon sitting upright, rather like a house cat—if a cat shone like a shattered mirror and stood thirty feet high.

Valen again put his hand upon his sword hilt.

“No need for that, young prince.” The dragon extended a clawed hand in a welcoming gesture. “Behold, my treasure.”

Valen’s focus shifted past the dragon, and he saw it. Whatever it was.

It was not natural, that the prince knew for sure. It stood taller than even the dragon, the size of a manor house. The object appeared to be made of metal—ancient metal—now dulled and spotted with lichen and moss. It was half-stuck in the ground, canted at a strange angle, and the stream detoured around it. It had stubby protrusions on one side, like the legs of a stool, and fins on the end like the flukes of an arrow.

“What is it?” asked Valen.

The dragon bowed. “It is a spaceship, my young prince.”

Valen made a face. “I do not know this word.”

The dragon sighed. “How easily things are lost. It is a craft, like a boat, only made to travel between the stars. Do you understand?”

“A sky-chariot!” cried Valen. “In truth, I have heard of such things, in the ancient tales of the Sky-Kings.”

“Yes, a sky-chariot. I suppose that name is as good as any.”

The prince narrowed his eyes. He spoke accusingly, “And how came you by it, dragon?”

The dragon chuckled again. “Why, I flew it here. Long, long ago.”

“Do you think me such a fool? It is too small for you. You would barely fit inside!”

Another sigh escaped the dragon. “In truth. I was smaller then. My people grow in phases, like…like a caterpillar changes to a butterfly. I crashed my ship…my chariot, rather, long ago. At the beginning of the dark times. The human race had fallen. They could not help me. It took me many years to gather the pieces to fix my craft. And by that time, as you say, I had grown. I could not even fit in the door. And so, here I remain.”

Valen regarded the dragon, while the prince’s horse pawed and fidgeted. “You say the human race had fallen?”

“Do you not even know your own history?”

“All have heard the old tales. But no one knows for sure.”

The dragon shifted its great bulk and scratched itself behind its ear. “Such a treasure I could be to you humans, if you would only honor me and listen to my tales, instead of sending your warriors to break their lances upon my hide. Sit back, young prince, and learn a thing or two.

“Long, long ago,” the dragon said, “humans travelled between the stars, as did my people. In ships such as these. Would it surprise you to know that I was a being of no small importance? I was an ambassador. A representative between the rulers of my world and your human emperor. But humans, then as now, seem drawn to war, as a moth to a candle-flame. And with similar results. Your emperor Chang was a great warlord, with vast fleets of sky-chariots spanning the stars. And yet he was losing. You have been educated in military tactics, have you not, my prince?”

“I have.”

“Then of course you know, then as now, that it is inadvisable to fight a war on multiple fronts. But the Chang didn’t listen to his advisors. Madness rotted his brain. And when he finally realized he would lose, he unleashed his final revenge, his dead-man’s switch. Do you know of this term?”

“I do.”

“So you see, the Chang had seeded all the worlds of his empire, and those of his enemies, with the foulest of weapons. Disease. Terrible weapons that would destroy all, human and alien alike, and which would erode the minds of its victims. Worse still, he released other sorts of diseases, the sort which would attack the brains of the thinking machines, the computers that stored the knowledge of their great civilization.

“And so, with his enemies at his gate, he released his terrible plague. People and aliens died by the billions. Incomprehensible slaughter. Madness and chaos. Death on an unimaginable scale, across thousands of worlds. The humans died, and the thinking machines went silent. Worse still, the humans who were not killed by the diseases were left mentally crippled, barely smart enough to hitch a horse to a plow. An entire generation was left disabled, stupid, unable to teach their children, unable to pass knowledge along to the next generation. The great chain was broken.”

The dragon sighed. “It was generations before you humans relearned even the most basic skills. The tools of your former empire lay scattered throughout the universe like so many broken toys.”

Valen snorted. “A fine tale, dragon.”

“Was that a pun? Ah, no matter. In any case, this is the treasure the Armorer’s Guild seeks. The last functional starship on the planet. With it they would be lords and rulers of this entire world, of the solar system. Or so they believe. They will stop at nothing to have it. And it would be better for you and your people if they did not get it.”

“So you say. They warned me you were a trickster, sharp of wit and tongue.”

The dragon casually reared up onto its hind legs, towering above Valen. “That charge I cannot deny. I am particularly sharp of wit. But I will strike you a bargain, Prince. Go and leave me in peace, and I will give you far greater treasure.”

“Oh?” said Valen, “what treasure do you offer?”

“Why, knowledge. I could show your smiths and philosophers things they’ve never even dreamed. I could explain the nature of disease, so that you might stop epidemics. I could tell you the recipe for the guild’s fire-powder. Or I could tell you how to create a mechanism by which fresh water, both hot and cold, can be brought directly to every house, and fecal matter swept away. Or I could explain the manufacture of a navigation device that could determine exact location simply from the position of the sun and stars. Your ships could sail to the far continents with ease.”

The prince shot an incredulous look at the dragon. “What far continents?”

“Ah, so much to learn. This is what I offer you. In return for my peace. And one other thing. You must give me your weapon. The plasma lance you wear upon your back.”

“The fire-of-the-gods?”

“If that’s what you call it.”

Valen’s hand returned to his sword. “You seek to disarm me with trickery and leave me defenseless.”

“My prince, have you used this weapon?” When Valen did not answer, the dragon continued, “And do you know, offhand, the thermal rating of the armor you wear?”

“I know not what you mean.”

The dragon crouched down, bringing his huge face level with Valen. “If you value your life, you will not use the fire-of-the-gods. It is a more terrible weapon than you can imagine. It creates a heat next to which a smith’s forge is nothing. The men who wielded it in battle needed a far stronger armor than your own. The plasma lance would kill us both, and likely everything in this valley. That the Guild sent you forth armed with it speaks to how little they value your life, how little they care if you live through your quest.”

The prince straightened up in his saddle. “Your words are lies. Regardless, I have given my word of honor to defeat you.”

“You have pledged your honor to those who have none.” The dragon rumbled. “And yet, what must be must be. In truth, I grow weary of this exile, of these hateful beings and this cold, dead planet. With your mighty weapons, you, at least, stand a chance of ending my suffering. But I will not lay down and die for you.”

“Very well.” Valen lowered his visor. “Let us—” The prince’s words were cut short when the dragon knocked him sprawling from his saddle.

With one great hand, the dragon seized Valen’s black steed. The horse screamed in terror until the dragon snapped its neck.

Valen leaped to his feet. “Foul beast!” he cried, drawing his sword.

The dragon stood tall and roared, “Strike me then!”

With a cry of rage, Prince Valen rushed in, swinging his sword. The dragon danced nimbly backwards, lifting his forepaws to avoid the bite of the humming blade. Valen charged ever forward, his fear forgotten in his anger, for he had loved his horse dearly.

“Too slow, young prince, try again!” The dragon retreated still, with an ease that belied his bulk. Yet the prince cleverly faked left, then rolled forward, placing himself beneath the dragon’s shimmering torso. He swung his mighty blade overhead and a cut opened upon the dragon’s flank. The beast cried out in pain and rolled away.

“Well struck, my prince,” growled the dragon. A clear fluid seeped from his wound, and he clamped a forepaw against it. “But you must do better. Perhaps after I’ve done with you, I’ll seek out your Western Lands. Perhaps your virgins taste better than those of the Ricars.”

“You shall die upon this day!” screamed Valen. He swung again, cutting another long rend in the dragon’s side. The dragon reached down and seized Valen’s sword. Though the blade of the ancients bit deep into his flesh, still he hung on and wrenched the weapon from Valen’s hand. Two of the dragon’s clawed fingers dropped, neatly severed, into the dirt. The dragon flung the sword far away towards the horizon.

“What now, young hero?” hissed the creature. More clear fluid poured from the stumps of his fingers.

Valen seized a mighty boulder in his arms and flung it at the dragon, who turned and took the missile in the side. He stumbled sideways a step and turned towards prince Valen. “Rocks? you seek to defeat me with rocks?” The beast backhanded Valen again, sending him flying.

Valen crashed through a stand of trees. Pain lanced up his side. His left arm suddenly felt as though it weighed a hundred pounds. Inside his helmet, he heard the woman’s voice again. “Structural integrity compromised. Numerous stress fractures detected. Left arm servomotors damaged. This unit recommends leaving active combat theater to seek diagnosis and repair.”

The prince stumbled from the broken glade of trees. His faceplate was spider-webbed with cracks. “Evil beast,” he wheezed.

“Let us cease the name calling and get this over with,” snarled the dragon. “You have one weapon left. See how well it serves you.”

Shaking the fog out of his head, Valen unslung the fire-of-the-gods from his back. His thumb found the activator trigger. He rested the shaft of the weapon in the crook of his useless left arm and aimed the dished end at the dragon.

“I give you one last chance to heed my words.”

“Foul and wicked creature,” the prince tightened his grip upon the trigger, “meet your doom.”

Valen pulled the trigger.

Pain. Heat and pain. The world exploded in fire. Valen saw the trees all around him burst into flame like matchsticks. the grass withered and blackened in a wave of death pouring from the terrible weapon. The water of the creek boiled.

Even as the pain overcame him, Valen had the pleasure of seeing the dragon turn its head away and shield its eyes with its hands. The mirrored scales glowed cherry red. Around his wounds the flesh burst into flames. A fire burned deep within the creature’s belly.

Valen watched the dragon consumed from within by the cleansing flame.

And then the pain was too great, and Valen knew no more.

***

He was awakened, some time later, by an incessant chirping, rather like crickets. He opened his eyes. Strangely, he didn’t feel anything at all. Then the woman’s voice was in his ears again. “Extreme thermal stress damage. All power busses offline. This unit is inoperable. Life threatening operator injuries have been detected. This unit has administered pain medication, and has activated emergency beacon. Please stand by for medivac. Extreme thermal stress damage…

The young prince tried to move his arms and could not. The clear visor of his helmet was warped and bubbled. An irregular wheeze filled his ears, which he realized was the sound of his own breath.

Through the distorted lens of his visor, Valen could see the valley. The trees were blackened stumps. The grass had been scorched down to bare earth. Everywhere was ruin. The sky chariot, however, stood gleaming and new. The fire-of-the-gods had blasted away the grass growing from its seams, scoured away the lichen and the grime of years.

Of the dragon, nothing remained. But where the beast had stood now sat five oblong spheres. Valen struggled to stay conscious as he stared at the strange objects. Shortly, they began to quiver and shake. First one, then another and another of the things broke open. Out crawled five tiny dragons. Had Valen been able to stand, these new dragons would have come up as high as his chest. They were like their parent in every respect, but miniature. The shimmering coats of knives, the catlike eyes, the whipping tail. They fell out of their egg casings, stretched in the sun, rolled in the blackened earth. When they had all hatched and composed themselves, they approached the fallen prince.

“Ah, my foolish prince,” said one tiny dragon, “had you but listened…”

Another dragon continued, “My people do not reproduce like your people. We are born of fire. We must climb deep into the volcanic fires of our home planet, and let the fire burn away our old self, in order to give birth to the new. I am my child, and yet I am still myself. Each of my children carries my memories, my lives. The plasma lance was the only thing on this cold, dead planet that could release me from my previous form. So, for bringing it to me, I thank you. I gave you every chance to turn from your quest. I wish it could have been otherwise.”

“And,” a third dragon spoke, “as you see, you have helped me solve my great problem. For now, we are entirely small enough to fit into our ship once again. And so the time has come. We will leave this cold, hateful little planet to your cold, hateful people, hopefully to reach the planet of our birth. And I pray that humankind is never again free to roam the stars.”

One by one the small dragons turned and filed back to the sky chariot. At the dragon’s touch, a door slid open in the craft’s side. The dragons entered, and then the door closed.

A great humming filled the air. The gravel danced on the ground. The sky chariot lifted, sucking out of the mud and the mire. Its stubby little legs folded up into its body as it rose. It turned, pointed its nose towards the sky, and was gone.

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