CHILD OF FIRE AND BLOOD
The hot spring the dragons traditionally referred to as “the Place of Surrender“ was a place that some said conveyed its own sense of personality. Even frequent visitors found themselves impressed by its beauty. Believed to be unique within any lands the dragons knew, the area was dominated by a reddish brown and white marble eroded smooth by bubbling mineral waters over the course of countless years. The natural stone formations of slopes, steps and pools had been added to by many skilled crafters, enhanced through the creation of polished marble shelters and decorative structures to guide the water flows in aesthetically pleasing ways and to control the dissipation of the area’s natural heat. The artistic and practical fusion of elements created a special valued status for the location, respected for its tranquility by both dragon and Magi. All this existed within a great basin barely a hundred feet from the base of the southern wall of a sprawling range of jagged mountains most of the world called the Teriena Mountains. To those ancient dragons who had collectively inhabited the range for over a million years and the Magi who lived further south, they were simply dragonlands.
The nature of dragons being as it was, it was particularly rare for any of their kind to note time passage with the level of detail common to more finite species. Marking seasonal changes was their normal method of measuring the progression of a year. It was atypical among dragons to require any more specific record. Arranging meetings with non-dragons often proved an exercise in frustration when attempting to be more precise than a period of about twenty days. In adversarial matters, patient dragons had sometimes been known to outwait human opponents, achieving effortless victory through attrition.
Shakata knew it was significant to have been called to meet the head of the Dragon Council with such specificity, but he was also not surprised that the elder had not yet arrived. Still, he felt compelled to search while waiting, just to be sure they had not missed each other. Wearing only a snug pair of shorts that covered him down to mid-thigh, Shakata‘s muscled arms and torso glistened in the humid air as he walked away from a pair of relaxation experts back toward Kieren Sha where he had left her basking. Kieren Sha’s arms were outstretched from her sides along the rim of the basin, her upper body soaking in sunshine as the rest of her bathed in effervescent mineral water.
“Close your mouths, girls,” Kieren Sha called to the pair watching Shakata walk away. “You’re going to catch flies.”
“What’re you on about?” he asked, crouching beside the hot tub. “You’re supposed to be basking.”
“They were looking at you like you were lunch,” Kieren Sha said. “I don’t like their ideas of servicing you.”
“I thought it was odd that they were both offering to massage me,” he said.
“I can’t leave you alone anywhere,” she said. “I’ll massage you if you want one. They shouldn’t be trying to abuse their position like that. There are plenty of places for them to meet men with their guard down.”
“Not with so many spending all their time in Freespace,” Shakata said. “This is one of the few experiences that artificial reality just can’t match. You know how I feel about that, though.”
“Oh, sure,” she said. “You won’t shut up about it.”
“Sorry,” he told her. “You should keep an eye on your tan. You’re going to be as red as the marble if you’re not careful.”
“As long as I don’t get any tan lines,” she said, turning around. “How’s my back?”
“Beautiful as ever,” he replied. “You don’t have to stay just to protect me from stalkers, y‘know. I have to do this, but if you want to go, I can do this without you.”
“What? No, I’m in,” Kieren Sha said, turning back to face him and sliding her palms up her sides and over the tops of her breasts before stretching her arms to the sky. “I just never seem to get here enough…to really enjoy it.”
“Well, I just want to get to business and get done,” Shakata said.
“Alright,” Kieren Sha said, standing tall with her perfect breasts glistening in the sunlight, “I‘m ready. Get in here and service me.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “I forgot…It’s my turn to service you, isn’t it? Get in here and--”
“I…thought I’d look around once more,” Shakata said, eyeing her with increasing scrutiny. “Are you sure you’re alright? Maybe the heat‘s getting to you.”
“I…thought I was fine, but maybe it is,” Kieren Sha told him. “There are lots of other places to see pretty things. Maybe we should get out of here and bounce through some other dimensions. It could be lots of fun.”
“Just for the day?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said with a smirk, “maybe two.”
“Or even a week,” Shakata said. “It has to be more fun than hanging around here.”
“Oh, we could visit my mother,” Kieren Sha said.
“In Magick?” Shakata asked. “Even if you know where, I thought there were restrictions against us mingling with the faeries.”
“But if you got special permission from Coyote…”
“Because all he wants is for me to agree to come to his plane and party and play and never ever leave,” Shakata said.
“Oh, now you’re talking my language,” Kieren Sha told him, wading across the hot tub to him with a mischievous gleam in her eyes.
“Literally, I imagine,” he said, poking his index finger at the center of his companion’s forehead, “Coyote.”
“Damn,” Kieren Sha said, her voice changing slightly and her shoulders slumping as a look of profound disappointment overcame her. “How’d you know?” came the question, accompanied by a profound huff and a lower lip pushed into full pout.
“You’re chaotic, Great Trickster,” Shakata said, “but broadly consistent. More importantly, Kee actually knows why we’re here.”
“It’s not to get hot and sweaty?” the puzzled immortal asked. “You do know, that’s why everyone else is here, right?”
“No,” Shakata said, doing his best to sound patient. “Regardless, I’m here for something serious.”
“No, you’re here for something boring,” Coyote complained through his mortal disguise. “Everybody else is here for action. Hot bod here,” Coyote said, grabbing and shaking her ample breasts, “is here for action with you, believe it or not. When are you going to close this deal, little buddy?”
“You’re making less sense than usual,” Shakata said, maintaining a confident facade. “This is one of those times when you’re trying to salvage your position by confusing me, right?”
“Whatever you want to believe,” Coyote said, looking at him with renewed resolve. “You desperately need to enjoy yourself more. You’ve no idea how stressed you look. Come with me. We can fly and play and--”
“No,” Shakata said, reminding himself who was truly behind the inviting tones and violet eyes.
“You don’t trust me,” the pouting lips moaned with a bit of a quiver. “After all the years we’ve known each other?”
“On the contrary,” Shakata said. “I trust you to be all too true to the Bright Chaos you embody, which offers me very poor odds of surviving your ideas of play, especially when your mind starts wandering to some new whim. That's when spider silk wings suddenly unravel and reality's harsher bits revert to relevancy.”
Coyote stuck Kieren Sha’s tongue out at Shakata.
“I definitely don’t want to see you harm Kee. You didn’t just copy her this time,” Shakata said, studying his friend’s form, “you’ve possessed her, haven’t you?”
“So what if I have?” the Trickster asked, making her sound petulant. “Maybe I like being a Coyote in Sha’s clothing.”
“And maybe I don’t like you treating her like some kind of a toy,” the young man said, steam rising off him as he lost his composed veneer for a moment. “I thought it was just the heat, at first, but you’re doing something to her aura that can’t be healthy.”
“Hey, calm yourself. You’re going to boil the water,” Coyote warned. “You want her back raw not cooked, right?”
In response, a flash of violet energy leapt from her. The light coalesced into a canine form seated beside the hot tub. Shakata noticed almost immediately that this new body had not only six legs but also six eyes.
“Satisfied?” Coyote asked.
“Close enough. That form’s actually more comprehensible,” Shakata said. “Thanks.”
“For you? Not a problem,” Coyote said, “big dumb genius know-it-all.”
“Shaka?” Kieren Sha moaned weakly. “What…?”
“Welcome back, Kee,” Shakata said, steadying her and guiding her to his side of the pool. “How do you feel?”
“I’m not sure,” she said. “When did we get here? And where’s here, anyway?”
“Here is where we are, of course,” Shakata said to her.
“Thanks,” she said, looking about. “Wolf?” Kieren Sha asked, still a bit dazed.
“Oh, please,” Coyote snapped, assuming the form of a grizzled, white-haired man so he could scowl at Kieren Sha with his hands on his hips, “as if that stiff has anywhere near my charm.”
“It’s Coyote, Kee,” Shakata said. “He…borrowed you.”
“You dare take me for some mundane avatar, a spirit, a shade reincarnating from one mortal form to the next,” Coyote protested. “I am of the Infinite, older than time, primal power beyond your woefully limited comprehension. Were you to behold me in all my unbound glory--”
“Thanks for keeping that thing covered this time, by the way,” Shakata said.
“--you would succumb to utter madness.”
“Would it sound anything like your ranting?” Shakata asked.
“Tread with care, boy,” Coyote warned grimly. “You may be especially delightful, but you’re not beyond even the least of my power.”
“No,” Shakata acknowledged thoughtfully, looking deep into the celestial being’s eyes, “but I notice you’ve yet to end me.”
The bullying trickster read the eyes of his mortal acquaintance for several tense seconds, seeking out any trace of fear upon which he might prey.
“Did you really need me here for this?” Kieren Sha asked, attempting to break the uncomfortable tension.
“Of course not,” Shakata said. “Coyote just doesn’t have a problem treating everyone else as a plaything.”
“You should see how you seethe when you get protective of her. You don’t have to like it,” the ancient entity told him, “but this one’s mine. She was born here, but she’s got my brand on her same as her mother.”
“She doesn’t need you exploiting her,” Shakata said. “This plane isn’t Magick and we’re not part of your playground.”
“You’re funny,” Coyote said. “If I ever get tired of going where I want and doing what I want, I’ll let you know.”
“For now, how about you just leave Kee alone?” Shakata asked. “She needs to recover.”
“You’re so fussy,” the immortal laughed. “She’s too comfy inside not to wear around once in a while. You should try her.”
“Being part-faerie doesn’t make her yours to victimize.”
“Sure it does,” Coyote insisted. “She’s so much bigger on the inside and we both like you for some reason. Plus, the faeries are my children, so…who better to torment? I screw with them and they pass it on. It‘s educational parenting.”
“Not enough fey blood to allow her to dwell with the faeries, but enough to make her a target?” Shakata asked.
“Not even close to fair for her,” Shakata said. “Bad form.”
“You think you‘re the first to notice mortal lives ain‘t about fairness?” Coyote taunted. “Still, I’ve yet to make her do much of anything she hasn’t truly wanted to do.”
“You expect me to believe that?” Shakata asked.
“I expect you not to know whether to believe it or not,” Coyote laughed. “You two are such messy torrents of thoughts and feelings,” he said, tapping on Shakata’s skull. “Poor boy. So many gifts from the First Child, yet still merely mortal.”
“I can live with it.”
“But for how long?” the immortal asked. “Are you really going to argue for the limits of the finite?”
“She‘s free,” Shakata told him, “and I’ll fight for her for as long as I‘ve got.”
“You’ve got spirit, kid,” Coyote said. “You may not pick the fights with the best odds, but you’ve got spirit.”
“Look where I live. I’m used to being the smallest one in any fight.”
“Yeah, you’re really shaking your home team up with all that young rebel noise of yours,” Coyote said. “When do you start setting the fires?”
“I’m not trying to hurt anyone,” Shakata said. “I do respect my people.”
“You want them to eat right and exercise,” Coyote said, “but you want to do it the hard way by leaving the choice up to them based on some notion of respect for those…people you’re pretending are your actual parents.”
“I--Wait. What?” Shakata asked.
“I’d tell you to accept that you’re not going to fit in and get on with your life, but you clearly yearn to be challenged,” Coyote smiled broadly as he laughed out loud. “So keep charging onward like a wildfire, young one. You’ll find all you can manage.”
“You’re saying that following my feelings on this will lead to destruction?” Shakata asked.
“You can’t reconstruct till after you’ve destroyed, kid,” Coyote said. “Any shaman worth a damn’ll tell you that.”
“All of Nature finds regeneration through Fire,” Shakata said with the distant tone of one recalling a dream.
“Who says the young can’t be taught? No, boy, you do whatever works for you. Follow your nose, your big toe or your third leg. It doesn’t matter to me. Dance to your own music. Take a rope to a sword fight. Cut the blue wire. Answer authority with questions! Just remember to enjoy stepping on all those toes because people too angry to see straight can‘t aim their lies well either.”
“Wait, what about my parents?” Shakata asked.
“What about your parents, Shaka?” Kieren Sha asked, a probing hand on his right arm.
Shakata looked at her, then back to Coyote, but the immortal was gone.
“He’s gone,” Shakata said. “Where’d he go?”
“He vanished thirty seconds ago, Shaka,” she told him. “Then, you just…blanked out. Whatever possessed you to challenge him like that?”
“Him possessing you, I believe,” he said. “You think I’d ever just stand by and not fight for you?”
“He could’ve changed you into a slug or something,” she warned him. “Or wished you away like dust in the wind.”
“Well, the day I push too far,” Shakata said, “I suppose I’ll find out the hard way.”
“I’d rather you didn’t,” she said. “You going to be alright?”
“Indeed, a valid query,” a deep, gravelly voice asked from behind them.
“Aash-katier,” Shakata said as the young Magi pair turned to face the huge silver dragon. “Welcome, elder. You’re well?”
“My greatest issue is deep concern for you, little one,” the revered dragon elder said as he folded his shining wings along the shimmering scales of his back.
“Just…pondering my sanity,” Shakata said. “How might I assist the Dragon Council today?”
“Oh, it is I who have come to be of aid,” the ancient one said. “There are events unfolding of which you should be aware.”
“Alright,” Shakata said. “Where shall we begin?”
“You should take this,” Aash-katier said, holding out a luminous crystal ball to him.
“Thank you,” Shakata said, cradling the heavy piece of clear crystal in his hands. “This is…several thousand years old?”
“Correct. Two of our smoke agents have confirmed the presence of an Albani military force that’s taken control of two human communities in Bentrci near Zadiasam’s border,” the great dragon reported in his rumbling bass. “And I believe you were already aware of the manifestation in Azirta.”
“Yes,” Shakata said. “Are these events connected to this crystal somehow?”
“Look into the crystal,” Aash-katier told him. “Relax and clear your mind.”
His feet still dangling in the hot tub, Shakata did as he was instructed. Kieren Sha continued watching over him silently from a few feet away, submerged in the bubbling water up to her neck. As his gaze blanked, Kieren Sha’s brow furrowed.
“That’s not magical,” she said quietly. “I sense some great power in it, though. You know he doesn’t do magic, right?”
“Be at ease, child,” Aash-katier whispered, his silver-scaled form relaxing along its outstretched length as it wound about the curvaceous formations of hot rock in characteristically serpentine fashion. “Give him a moment.”
“I see…great fire,” Shakata said, the crystal beginning to glow as it appeared to flame within. “From First Child‘s fire were Magi formed and formed again. Through time’s passage, Darkness first falls. The frozen giant advances. With crimson storm, are beast and Behemoth born. By night, fire descends to cool the eastern jewel. By southern dawn’s light will fire take flight over fertile fields of blood and peace…rushing jumbling images…so much…” he said, starting to wobble.
Kieren Sha stood, wading to Shakata’s side and putting her hands on his knee. The crystal rolled forward from his limp hands, Kieren Sha catching the orb just before it hit the water.
“Shaka?” she probed as Aash-katier reached out to hold him upright.
“Fire and water…” Shakata said, sounding almost drunk. “Raining fish…ice and dark…and…”
“And? And what, Shaka?” she asked.
“The end,” he said.
“End,” she echoed. “What end? End of what?”
“End…the Magi,” he said.
Kieren Sha looked at the crystal in her hand, its glow faded, then up at Aash-katier.
“It’s more than I got out of it,” the ancient dragon said.
“Where did you get this?” Kieren Sha asked.
“From our friend’s parents,” Aash-katier replied, looking to Shakata.
“Did I miss anything?” Shakata asked, regaining alertness.
“When the Magi came to request a home in these lands,” Aash-katier said, “they were received as kindred for it was through the First Child that dragonkind first learned the Way of Fire. Still, the Magi were charged with proving they could hold any territory they might be granted, ultimately earning the name ‘Warlords’ among the humans whom they had allowed to live. With their chosen border defined, the Magi entrusted this crystal to me as a symbol of peaceful coexistence. Naming it ‘Laku’, they bid I should hold it until a time I would come to know.”
“They gave you this…thousands of years ago?” Kieren Sha asked.
“Yes,” the dragon said.
“I saw myself,” Shakata said.
“I saw you, also,” Aash-katier told them. “Thus, as events began to occur that struck my notice and the orb began to glow more, I thought it time to pass this to you.”
“Laku,” Kieren Sha said. “That sounds…old…and very familiar. What’s that mean?”
“Nothing,” Shakata said.
“I know it’s familiar,” she said. “It has to mean something.”
“It does,” Shakata said. “It’s the old tongue, Primal. It means, ‘zero’ and ‘nothing’. In this case, apparently a very specific nothing: the end of the Magi.”
“If any of that other nonsense is even to be trusted,” she said. “There is no southern dawn.”
“Maybe…second dawn?” Shakata pondered.
“Prophetic ramblings are often open to interpretation,” the elder dragon offered. “This whole thing may be premature, but when the manifestation of Phoenix descended last night upon Azirta, Zadiasam’s eastern jewel, I made an assumption. It may yet be proven right or wrong. Likewise, the further connection of Alban to being the frozen giant.”
“I’d say our options are further meditation,” Shakata said, “and using Oracle’s planetary surveillance to watch for anything else that seems like it may fit.”
“Just what you needed,” Kieren Sha said, “an excuse to try to isolate yourself.”
“Well, Kee, obviously, this could be of great importance,” Shakata said. “The things I’ve just seen and the images I’ve been seeing may prove to be warnings of great danger to all of us. We have to find out what’s going on.”
“Yes,” Aash-katier said. “No offense, but I’ll be very interested to learn what comes of all this. The suspense has really been getting to me the last couple of centuries.”