He awoke in the dark, wrapped tightly around himself, confined. It was time to get out, he knew. He felt it in his bones. He needed to get out.
He groaned, flexed, pressed against the bonds of his prison, with foreclaws, hindclaws, wings and tail. Nothing. But when he shifted his neck, he found the back of his crest wedged squarely against the top of his prison, and felt the tiniest give…
He heaved, convulsing his entire body, and felt the prison give slightly more. He pulled back, then drove his head once again into the prison, and the tiny amount of give he had put into it gave him just a little more room to wind up, and drove his crest into the prison just a little deeper.
Again and again he tore at his prison, with the only tool available to him, until there was a thunderous crack, the loudest noise he had heard-
The only noise he had heard. And light, he saw, was spilling into his prison now.
With sound and light came a flood of sensation, and…memory? Not memories, exactly. Instincts? Something else?
But most of what came was encouragement. He bared his teeth, twisted his head slightly back and forth until he felt the tiny horns beside his crest catch on something, then heaved again, not convulsively, but with all of his strength-
And with another thunderous crack, his head finally cleared his eggshell.
He looked around, extending his neck (which was, he realized, now quite sore), and delicately raised his foreclaws up through the hole as well. Now that he had room to stretch out, it was easy to put one claw on one side of the crack, the other on the other side and heave.
His prison finally broken at last, he rolled over, feeling cold stone against his tough scales and delicate wing membranes. He was desperately hungry, and before he realized what he was doing, he found himself gnawing at his eggshell.
As he ate, more of himself came to him. He was…
He frowned, baring his fangs. He had a name, obviously. All dragons with the strength to hatch had names. It was…it was on the tip of his tongue…yes, it was Virthon…no, it was Vyaxthus…
He shook his head, and looked up, pausing his first meal. V-something. V.
V would do for now, until he could sort himself out. And, to make sure…
He inspected himself carefully, confirming that he was in fact a him, and that he was well-formed. He felt a strange, phantom dread creep over his mind as he did so, like an echo, or a memory, but it faded as he confirmed who and what he was.
He was a dragon, the noblest and most regal of all creatures, and specifically, a gold dragon, the grandest of all dragons. He flicked his wings, unfurling them, and looked around, preparing for his first flight eagerly-
But for the first time, his surroundings caught his attention. He was alone, apparently, in the middle of a rune-circle, and as he saw the runes, more memory-instincts flooded his mind. Runes of warmth, of protection, of warding, inlaid deeply into the rock. Inside the rune circle was a scroll, wrapped around a wooden rod. But outside of the nest, around him and above him, was a shell of iron, like another egg. The iron shell seemed uniform, save for one area, marked with an iron bite-rod, and what looked like a hatch.
V looked at the mechanism for a moment, took a breath-
And realized that the air inside his chamber was already growing close and stale. He could exist for decades, even a century or two while gestating inside his egg. But he was a gold dragon, a creature of fire, and fire needed air to live.
Was this carelessness? Or a trap?
No. It was a test, he knew.
Well, only a fool took a test without understanding what and how one was being tested. V turned back from the mechanism, doing his best to slow his own breathing, and grasped the scroll. It was quite large, at nearly half V’s own serpentine length, and appeared to consist of some kind of animal hide, wrapped around a thick wooden pole. He unrolled it delicately. The wood atop the scroll was, incongruously, carved into a relief of a dozen different kinds of animals; as V looked at it, another phantom memory struck him, of peering into a humanoid house, and seeing two larger humanoids instructing a smaller humanoid hatchling – no, infant – with carved figurines much like these. And the writing upon the scroll was not in the ancient Draconic script, which all dragons hatched knowing instinctively, but another language, one belonging to one of the humanoid races.
V grimaced. The contents of this scroll could well be the difference between his life and death, trapped here in this chamber without air. He had fewer than five minute’s life experiences, and he could already tell that this scroll was strange. But strange or not, he needed to know what it said. So, stilling his breath even further, he raised his head to the top of the scroll, glad that his instinct-memories included whatever language this scroll was written in, and began to read.
I know that it is not traditional for a sire to reach out to his progeny in such manner, especially before you have passed through your Trial and taken your place above. It is, of course, your dam’s duty to construct an appropriate Trial for you; I am glad that she indulged me in placing this note of encouragement for you where you could find it.
Given the circumstances, I will be brief, and alas, I must be nonspecific. I hope that you have hatched successfully, that your scales are hard, your fangs and talons sharp, your muscles strong, and the fire in your heart brightly-burning. I hope you have emerged from the Great Dream with your mind as sharp as your claws, and your soul brimming with wisdom of the ages, renewed with youthful vigor, as is our way. And if the knowledge of what you are to undergo, and why you must undergo it, is not yet clear to you; let me explain. We, as dragons, are the greatest and grandest creatures across all the lands. But we are creatures still, and like all creatures, we exist in balance with those creatures beneath us, and with each other. If we did not carefully regulate our breeding, and our hatchlings, then we would grow too numerous, and ravage the land, and all would perish. So it must be that every hatchling proves themself worthy of life, at succeeding in the Trial set forth for them, by their dam. However, I know that you will find yourself the equal of this trial, even when other hatchlings might well fail and falter and perish, to return their life and essence to the Great Dream for a time, before being reborn anew. I know this, because you are my hatchling, and because I have faith in you.
Until we see one another for the first time:
Proud Sire, Vaersylkythrix
V pulled his head from the scroll, and breathed carefully. The flood of words had triggered another cascade of memory-instincts. The words of the scroll were true. He was a newly-hatched dragon, and his mind and spirit came from the Great Dream that all dragons shared, and to which he would return to when he passed on. And though his Trial felt cruel, he could feel many other Trials in his past, and could feel the shape of having administering them himself, in his previous lives. He could also feel a complex web of magics around the scroll as well, protecting it from decay, ripping, tearing, even burning. His Sire had put a great deal of effort into his message of encouragement.
“Dam and Sire, I will make you both proud.” V said, raising his head to peer upwards, then turned his attention to the mechanism. The bite-rod was large and heavy; V had to crane his neck upwards to seize its knobby top-section in his own jaws, and spread them uncomfortably wide to do so. This was a simple bite-rod, clearly designed to move in only two directions, and the base of it rested against the near-side stop. Well, it was a mechanism, and mechanisms were made to be activated…
V rose up slightly, and pulled experimentally on the bite-rod. It didn’t budge. Jerking harder gave a tremor of movement, and hurling his entire body-weight against it made the rod jerk, then seize up, snapping back to its original position.
But before the rod had seized, V felt a tremor from one of the sections of the iron shell. This was clearly the way to open the shell, if he could muster the strength.
V gave another long heave against the rod, producing another tremor, but found he did not have the sustained strength to move it slowly, and that fast movements stopped its forward motion entirely. What kind of mechanism was this?
A test of strength, clearly. And V did not have the time or the air to wait until his strength returned fully from his hatching.
Well, the might of dragons was not solely in their muscles. V paused, and took stock of himself once more. He could breathe fire, of course, and as a noble metallic dragon, he could also breathe a cloud of incapacitating gas, suitable for gently encouraging overeager humanoids to pause and take stock of their ill-fated assault. He could take the form of a humanoid, or an animal about the size of most humanoids. He could also fly, and even swim, provided the water in which he swam was well-aerated…
Well, first things first. Jaws were, V knew, a poor match for humanoid-style opposable thumbs when it came to fine manipulation. V drew upon his magic, called upon his ancient heritage, and rose in the form of a humanoid-
And froze. To his insensitive eyes, the light from the rune circle was not only not enough to read by, it was barely enough to see anything at all. Clearly he had chosen the wrong humanoid form.
He changed again, recognizing the nondescript humanoid form he had taken as a pureblood human, and tried again, taking the form of an elf. This let him see once more, but his grip strength was far weaker than it had been as a dragon, and even putting his full weight on the bar, it didn’t budge at all.
V resumed his dragon form, paused, rose carefully, rested his foreclaws on the bar, marshalled his power again, and delved deep into his memories of the dream, seeking an animal which was not that much larger than a humanoid, but very strong, and with the ability to grasp things-
There. In his memories, he saw a number of bears, many of which he recalled roaring challenge at him in his past lives (and most of which regretted it), but one breed, smaller than most-
Yes. In moments, V had taken the form of a black bear, and pushed eagerly on the bite-rod-
Which locked into place once more.
V let out an angry growl. What was this? He sensed no magic on the rod itself. How could it know the difference between being pushed on by a bear or a dragon?
The air was growing quite close. V needed to think. He needed more time-
V dove into his memories again, changing rapidly, taking the form of first a rat, then a mouse, then a shrew, finding the smallest animal-form he could. That was only reasonable; small animals had small lungs, and used much less air. It would give him a moment to think.
But, as V clung still to the bite-rod, from his new perspective, he saw that the rod itself had tiny, metallic notches inside the bite-grooves. His mind swam again, and he recalled locks, and clever thieves, eager to defeat the locks and take what was not theirs.
Unfortunately, his past lives had been much more focused on keeping thieves out than learning their arts. Clearly, the rod was designed that it needed to be gripped in the mouth of an actual dragon, or close facsimile, to move at all.
V considered his next course of action, looking down. Shrews, he learned, had terrible eyesight; the humanoid-body-length (about six feet, another phantom memory informed him) bite-rod seemed to descend into endless darkness from his tiny perspective, clinging to it from above…
V frowned. Could he trigger the latches manually, with his tiny paws? A brief experimentation suggested that he could, but only one at a time.
But he had not even seen the notches before, even with his draconic senses. And that made a dark kind of sense. This Trial had been created by his dam, clearly a gold dragon who demanded nothing but the absolute best from her hatchlings, and no full-grown, adult dragon would spend any time at all in the body of a shrew.
V swallowed. The idea that he might, just perhaps, not actually be worthy of passing his Trial had been whispering darkly into the back of his mind for some time now. But V steeled himself, remembering the words of his Sire. His dam had left him no words. She had left him a Trial. And, as he grinned a vicious shrew grin to himself, if she had not seen fit to tell him how she intended her Trial solved, V would solve it any damn way he could.
V descended the shaft of the bite-rod, looking for anything he did not perceive in dragon-form. And there, at the base of the rod, was a gap. V quickly scurried into it, wishing again for better visual senses, but let his tactile senses guide him, slipping into what he determined was not just a lever, but an entire complex mechanism. He paused again, becoming aware that shrews grew hungry even faster than dragons, but let his mind draw back to the Dream…
It was growing harder, he realized. The more he pushed, the less he could retrieve each time. Now, freshly-hatched, he was in a transitional phase, but soon, probably within the hour, he would be whole and independent.
But he needed more information. So he let his mind wander, and thought of humanoids and their clever, clever inventions, and dreamed of clockwork and springs and pulleys, of catchblocks and tackle, of levers-
And there it was. He pulled away from the dream, and saw what he had been missing. He had been dreaming of the devices of the humanoids, the humans and the dwarves and especially the gnomes. But those devices were intended as labor-saving devices. But this was a Trial. The mechanism did not use leverage and a gear ratio to amplify his strength, as a humanoid device would have done. Instead, it quartered it, forcing him to be far stronger than he would need to be in order to open the way. And the ratchet stopped the mechanism from moving too quickly, or too suddenly.
V grinned another mad shrew grin as his perspective shifted again, to that of a large rat, just able to fit inside the mechanism. But he would need more than shrew strength for what he had in mind. But if he inverted the ratchet, and swapped the position of those two gears…
It was close, exhausting work, and rat fur was no substitute for proper draconic scales. V found himself chafed raw in several locations by the time he was done. But he resumed his shrew form one last time, scurried out of the mechanism, resumed his dragon form, bit into the top of the bite-rod once more, this time carefully lining up his teeth, and pulled-
The rod moved smoothly, all the way down, but the door moved only barely.
V stopped about halfway down, hoping that his last intentional delve into the Great Dream had been sufficient, and released his grip-
And the rod slid smoothly upward, but he heard a solid clack as the ratchet stopped the door from moving back.
Two more pumps of the rod send blessedly fresh and cool air pouring into his confined cell, and five were enough to open the way entirely. V took a long moment to bask in both the relatively fresh air, and triumph, and took care to gather up the remnants of his shell, and the scroll from his Sire (which he carefully rerolled). He was immensely hungry, but he was a dragon, and hungered for treasure as much as sustenance, and he felt immeasurably proud of overcoming his Trial without needing to consume his entire eggshell-
V looked around, hoping (and, he admitted, fearing) to sense any sign of his dam. There were none. He had emerged into another cavern, this one much larger. The cavern was oblong, almost ovoid, and hundreds, perhaps thousands of body-lengths long, and perhaps half that wide, and dozens of body-lengths tall, at its tallest point. Covering much of the empty space in the cavern was a giant glyph. It was one of the simplest of draconic runes, representing the entwined Ouroboros, known even among the humanoids to represent infinity, appearing like a double-raindrop shape, mirrored at its tip, with crystal rings at regular intervals along both lobes of the rune, all glowing very faintly.
Well, then. The rune and crystals could wait. V stretched his wings once more, and took flight.
V darted forward, thrilling in the rapid motion and open air, and let out a roar of pure delight. Still, however, something marred his joyous first flight. He knew that there was a sky waiting for him, rising endlessly on, to the clouds that were the domain of his noble cousins, the silver dragons, in which dragons were absolute and uncontested lords and masters…but though he knew this, he could not remember it. He knew that the sun was bright and yellow, and the moon pale and white, and he knew that stars dotted the night sky…but what did it look like?
V let out another growl, and accelerated, circling the walls of the cavern, staying well away from the rune-path and crystal half-rings. The oblong shape of the large cavern reminded him of an egg, and when he had completed his circuit, he had seen no exits, nor any significant irregularities in the walls other than the entrance to the creche containing his first test.
So. This was another test, then.
He landed, considering. Hunger was gnawing at his belly, but he left his few remaining shards of eggshell in his claws; if there was one test remaining, there might be a third – but no reasonable dam could possibly need more than three tests, could she?
Regardless, he needed to shepherd his resources. After all, testing if a newly-hatched dragon would wantonly devour like a cruel and greedy chromatic dragon instead of a pure-spirited and noble metallic dragon was a fair and reasonable test. This might be an endurance trial of some sort.
V swallowed. In the worst case, he could try to gnaw through the protective magics on the large scroll his sire had given him; it was wood and cured leather, and neither would sustain him for long…but it was the choice between abandoning the only kind words he had ever received, or death…
V shook his head. No, starvation would not be part of this trial. Because if it was, then he would have been given an unfair advantage by being offered this scroll in the first place, and he was sure his dam would not be unfair. How could she? She was an elder of the gold dragons, and clearly a wealthy and powerful one, to afford such an extensive and automated Trial for her hatchling.
Well, if it was a trial, then he would meet it. And a trial in the air would let him truly show his prowess, and not have to resort to slightly-questionable means as he had before.
V flew to the center half-ring, where end was beginning, noted that it was larger and thicker than the others, and jerked slightly as he felt pressure on his wings as he glided over the path of the giant rune itself. He paused, then gently steered back into position, and grinned anew as wind filled his wings. Directional wind. So, was he meant to fly over this track? Follow the wind?
Lacking a better idea, he dove through the larger central ring, and was delighted to hear a crystalline chime, and see brilliance explode from behind him as the ring burst into pale, eldritch fire. He exited the wind-path, circling to see his handiwork, and beheld the central half-ring burning brightly, but even as he watched, the flames began to die. In just a few seconds, the ring was cold and dark once more.
Well, he had done something. V landed by the ring, and stuck an experimental claw through. The ring remained dark, and let out an unpleasant rumble, low enough to vibrate the stone underneath his feet-
Of course. The rings weren’t designed to be walked through. The challenge was to take them on the wing, to demonstrate aerial agility and grace in the same measure as his previous trial had demanded strength and size (or, in his case, precocious shapeshifting and engineering knowledge).
V gathered himself and then leapt into the air once more, flying in a great circle again, then dove once more for the ring-
Then snapped out his wings, arresting his fall as the chime sounded once more, and let the wind at his tail fill them as he turned, ever so slightly, darting forward-
He angled his wings down ever so slightly, passing less than a foot under the top of the next ring, and heard it chime as well, and as he turned into the curve, he saw that the central ring, from which he had started, was blazing with brighter fire.
V snapped his attention back to the ring in front of him, third of the seven, which had started to glow reddish-orange after his passage through the second ring. He took this one carefully, mindful of the deepening curve and its strange behavior, watching for traps-
There was no trap sprung, but also no chime or flash of pale fire. V narrowed his brow-ridges, set his claws, legs, and tail against his body to cut through the air like a knife, and accelerated for the fourth gate-
The fire burning at the central ring-gate died before V could reach the fourth gate. V continued back towards it, slowing his flight and looking for clues.
The central gate once more blazed to life with a chime as he passed through it, now going the other direction. V flew cautiously this time, looking for any sign of difference between this half of the glyph and the one he had just flown over.
This time, when he passed through the first ring on this new path, nothing happened. V exited the windstream once more, circling, and pondering. Perhaps the path was meant to be started in the direction he had tried initially?
V tried again, but this time, gave no care for observing the second path, and flew as rapidly as he could from central ring to first ring-
And it chimed and flashed with fire once more, and now that he was attuned to it, he saw the far ring on this path begin to glow red-orange as well…
It was symmetrical, of course. And that meant simply that he needed to pass through the rings quickly. He entered the central ring to start this race, then flew following the endless loop of wind…but clearly he was missing something with the yellow-orange rings.
V landed by the ring, and examined it closely. Up close, it was heavily enchanted, with spells of preservation and endurance (close kin to the knot of magic on his scroll, he realized) written heavily upon it.
The floor itself was also magical, V realized. This entire cavern was enchanted, and strongly. He had inherited more magical knowledge than most hatchlings, he was sure, but fully understanding the intertwined magics would be beyond him. But if he could get some clue…
Frowning, he turned to scrutinize the floor, hoping that the simpler, weaker magics there would provide a starting point. There, that was preservation, resistance to damage, and there were the signs of abjurations against scrying and remote-seeing, and there against the conjuration of extraplanar spirits…
V’s frown began to dissipate as a picture formed of the depth of the power of the magics that surrounded him, keeping him safe and giving him the chance to pass his Trial unhindered. His face froze, however, as he recognized the tell-tale signs of necromancy woven into the stone as well. The first signs of that fell-magic simply kept away the shades of the unquiet dead. But in addition to banishing any ghosts which might happen to find themselves in the cavern, the stones would also, quickly and quietly, render any dead creature into dust, and absorb the dust into themselves.
V’s empty stomach did a little flip-flop as he imagined other hatchlings, trapped by this riddle as he had been trapped in his egg, clawing madly and ineffectually at the stone around him, until they perished, from thirst or fatigue or simple fear, and their remains sliding silently into the stones around him, giving no sign that they had ever been there…
V snarled, and shook his head. It was necessary, if the world was to not be overrun by dragons, and the Great Dream drank dry by countless unworthy spirits. And regardless, he would not perish here. This was flight, and a puzzle, and V knew that he could both fly and solve puzzles.
He paced over to the second crystal ring-gate, scrutinizing its magical auras. One gate lit when he passed through it at speed, and the other did not. The control could only be magical, and indeed, now that he had studied the floor, he saw the twin of the necromantic magics on the cavern. The gates, however, reacted not to dead draconic flesh, but living.
V grinned, savoring the flash of understanding as though it were meat and drink. This ring looked so very similar to the other reddish ring. What did the other ring have that this ring lacked?
V stared for long minutes, comparing the auras in his mind. There were differences, but the magic was so overwhelmingly present, and there was so much of it. And he was young, and inexperienced.
He stepped back, and took to the air again, seeing the rune from above, looking for meaning.
A double-loop, repeated endlessly. Clearly, he was meant to traverse it, along one pathway, then the other, passing through the central ring each time. And indeed, the magics in the central ring were far greater and more complex than those in any of the side-rings. V knew he would simply tweak this magic the way he had done the mechanism before. He needed to understand.
What was present in the end-rings that was not present in the middle rings?
And as V followed the twisting path of the rune far above, letting his mind settle, he paused, craned his neck-
Of course. He was looking at it backwards.
He dove again for the far-ring, and looked anew, not for what magics it had that the mid-rings lacked, but for what it lacked that the mid-rings had. And there it was; the mid-rings drew on the reserve magic of the cavern to sense a living dragon passing through them, and light up for a time, but the magics meant to do the same for the far-ring was incomplete. And, V was delighted to see, the magics were mirrored, as far as he could tell; he just needed to find how to light one far-ring, and the other should work the same.
But if he could not interfere with the magic itself, how could he provide a flow of energy to the ring to let it…
V darted again for the central ring, and dove through it in a tight turn, testing his own aerial ability. As before, the fires of the ring started to die as soon as he left the airstream, but they lasted long enough for him to land atop the ring, seeing the fire play across his talons, and feel the heat-
Could it really be that simple?
Excitement and nervousness built in V’s chest. He let them build as he rose once more. He knew that he would grow hungrier and ultimately weaker with every serious attempt. He had to commit to this.
He looked down at his fragments of eggshell, and his scroll. They would slow him down, he realized. But this was a race, clearly meant to be time-sensitive, and V was sure that whatever would happen when he completed it would not stay happened for long.
V compromised, and devoured the rest of his eggshell, enjoying the burst of energy and feeling the edge fall from his gnawing hunger. He paused again to open the scroll, feel a burst of renewed energy at his sire’s faith in him, then wrapped it once more, tightly and carefully, ensuring that not the faintest scrap of leather was left to flap and foul his maneuvering.
Then, he took to the air once more, dove for the central ring, and flew, heard the chime, rushed for the first ring-
Then slowed marginally, letting the rushing air fill his lungs, pushed it downwards, inwards-
It was the opposite of shapeshifting. If shapeshifting was calling on his magical heritage to become other a dragon, than this was being a dragon in true, and in full.
V roared again as he breathed fire, bathing the far ring in his flame-
Which ignited the ring like thatch, only for the flames of his breath to burn bright yellow-
Then turn to white as he passed through the ring, as another chime sounded, deeper and more resonant than the others-
V crowed delightedly, but over-corrected leaving the ring, and left the path; before he could recover, the gates had gone dark once more.
Flying was easy. Flying and strafing a target precisely with dragonfire was considerably more difficult. Doing so twice in a row, or perhaps even thrice if V would need to ignite the central ring as well, all while keeping to the airstream provided for him, would be a trial indeed. But it was a trial – no a Trial – that V knew he could accomplish. He knew what he had to do now. All that was left was for him to do it.
And on his fifth attempt, he came tearing in, hearing the central ring hum as he frantically beat his wings, then let out a monstrous exhalation, twisting his neck all around, bathing the ring in fire just as he passed through it-
And the ringing stopped, replaced by a rumbling all around him, as the stone above him in the cavern ceiling shifted, revealing a shaft-
V wasted no time at all, but snapped out his wings, turning his forward momentum into a steep climb, and clawed forward, readying another breath in case any surprise waited for him at the top-
But as V rose, the shaft simply narrowed, then slid closed as he emerged from it, into another cavern, this one an elaborately-carved dome.
This was an incredibly detailed rendition of the night sky, he could tell. A giant full moon hung directly above him in marble, as a capstone to the dome, while flecks of quartz embedded into the black basalt of the dome itself. This chamber was enchanted, far more strongly than even the prodigious enchantments of the trial below him.
A whispering voice wrapped around V.
“You have done well to make it this far, my child.” The voice was low, deep, draconic, and powerful. It was also not truly a dragon’s voice; V knew enough to recognize a Ghost Sound spell when he heard it. He had apparently triggered a contingent spell when he had entered this chamber. The voice he heard was also distinctly feminine. Was this his dam? Had she left a message for him as well?
“You have proven that you have the strength, speed, and fury that I know so well.” said the voice again. And a knot of anxiety began to creep once more into V’s gut. There was something, faint but distinct, wrong with his dam’s voice.
“But I most know that it is truly you. I cannot…I cannot…not again. Not with another.”
There was a wordless sound, half sob and half cry, and then the voice mastered itself.
“One star in all the stars in the sky has special meaning to you. Choose it, touch it, and hold in your heart the reason why it is special, and earn your freedom. But touch only that star, and only with that thought foremost in your mind, for all other stars and all other thoughts will slay you on contact. But I know you will pass this trial. I know that you will come back to me. And when you do, I will be waiting for you, my daughter.”
“What?” V turned around in a circle, studying the sky, and feeling his anxiety grow. The magics of this room were far beyond him, but even he could see the deathspells inlaid into the stars around him.
What kind of a trial was this? What could this mean? Even if he had hatched in this chamber – even if he had been pulled prematurely from his egg, still bathed in the Great Dream, there was no way he could remember a specific memory from one specific dragon in history. It was impossible. He was trapped.
But he tried. He placed his one possession, made not of gold or jewels but infinitely precious to him just the same, on the ground, lay atop it, closed his eyes, and sought once again to connect to the Great Dream.
His hatching connection was long-since closed, but he tried anyway, forcing his anxiety away, letting himself simply drift…
It was not the Dream that answered him, but his own reason. His dam had, perhaps, grown too close in mindset to those of the humanoids. She had grown attached to one of her hatchlings. And when that hatchling had perished, she had acted, not in the manner of a gold dragon, but in the manner of a humanoid mother who had lost their child.
She had gone mad. And this Proving was the proof. She did not seek to test her hatchings to see if they were worthy dragons. She sought to ensure that of all the hatchlings she could ever have, only the hatchling she had lost would ever rise once more.
But that could not happen. That was impossible, insane even to consider. And the legacy of that madness would be uncountable hatchlings, entombed within the earth by a false and unjust Proving. V would be one of them. It was possible that eventually, dozens or hundreds of hatchlings might choose the right star, but the right star and the right thought? At the same time?
V opened his eyes, and stared again at the auras of the dome, looking for any sign of the key-star, but saw only death, wherever he looked.
V unrolled his sire’s scroll, and read it once more. “I am sorry.” he said. “I thought I would make you proud. I thought…”
V turned his head aside, as tears filled his eyes and the words blurred…
But viewed from the side, with eyes blurred by tears-
A thought filled V, but he dare not approach it straight on, for fear that it would escape, or be proven false, and that one more shock to him would drive him to incautious madness of his own, which would surely slay him, and V wanted to live-
“I want to live.” said V. “I deserve to live!”
This was a wrong that was being done, to him and all of his brood-mates. And he needed to fix it.
Start there. Start from what needs to happen-
But if V could intuit what had happened, from these few clues…
V shivered. His connection to the Great Dream was gone, but before it had gone, the awareness of what his dam had been attempting had to have made its way into his mind. And if he knew, then other dragons could have known. And if this atrocity had been going on for long enough…
V let himself look at the message from his sire. Strange, that it would be written in the human tongue, with its horizontal sentences and strange flourishes, and odd punctuation and spacing.
But you could do things in the human tongue that you could not in other languages. And one of the things you could do was say several things at once. You could deliver a simple message that would pass inspection, but conceal a hidden meaning. And as V let his gaze slide down the message, skimming it, and noting the odd gap between the final paragraph and his sire’s salutation, he noticed the odd, emphasized letters at the start of each paragraph.
“Dearest hatchling…I know that…Given the circumstances..Until we see…Proud sire.”
V sniffed, and began weeping anew as he read the final words, but now a mad hope burned in his breast. Taken by themselves, the first letters of each paragraph spelled “Dig up.”
He looked at the scroll again, and noted the silly, childish animals carved into the scroll’s rod. There was a bat, a dove, a cow, a sheep, a fish, a wolf, a mole-
A mole. He scanned the rest of the animals, noting that all of the other animals flew or walked or swam, but none other dug, or lived in burrows of any kind-
V delicately, hesitantly laid a claw on the mole, feeling for any kind of mechanism. He found none, but now that he was looking for it, the protective aura around the scroll were definitely bent strangely around this one animal.
“Help me.” said V, clutching the mole. “If you are some construct, some servant of Vaersylkythrix, then help me. Help me dig up-“
There was a *snikt*, and the scroll detached from the bar-
And from the side of the bar jutted a heavy pick-head, glittering with its own magics. And unlike the magics around him, these magics were very simple; they disrupted other magics.
V looked upwards, at the pale disc of the moon directly above him, blessedly free from stars, and let the engineering knowledge that had freed him from his first obstacle tell him what would happen to an arch, or a dome, when its capstone was removed.
Removed, or broken.
“Thank you, sire.” said V. With the pick-head extended, it was clear that the animals had been shaped as they had to serve as handles. He gripped the pick, and flew upwards, then pushed himself with a sudden burst of speed, and smashed the tip into the center of the moon-
The dome rang, first a crystalline pure tone, then into a rising warble, as V dropped, pulling in his wings, tail, and legs to avoid brushing the top of the dome as he fell, and landed heavily. Something was happening. There were magics in the dome itself that recognized this as an attack, and were trying to respond-
He gave them no time, but flew upwards again, leaving another deep mark in the moon, and now the sound of splintering crystal began to echo around him. V could sense the doom-spells woven into the stars beginning to bleed into the structure itself-
He had time for one last blow, and this time, V had no time for caution. He roared as he flew skywards once more, knowing that he would either break the capstone or slam into it, sprawling out and dying instantly as part of him reached past it, but flew onward and upwards, with every ounce of speed and precision that he had learned from his trials below-
As the pick struck the moon one last time, the pickhead shattered. Time seemed to slow for V as he hurtled into the moon and dome ceiling-
Which shattered themselves, instants later, as a cavernous crack opened above him-
Only for rock and mud to rain down immediately.
V dove into it, burrowing upwards, fighting the weight of stone and water, shifting madly, first as himself to make a gap in the descending avalanche, then into the form of a serpent to wriggle through some falling stones, then back to dragon to keep his upwards momentum, then smaller still into a shrew to avoid being crushed, then dragon once more-
Until, battered, bruised, and barely conscious, light trickled in from above, and V pushed himself even further, fighting his way through a current of water-
And burst out of the ground into a murky lake, in the process of draining down the hole he had made. He pushed upwards, unwilling to give up now, and exploded out of the lake, flying-
Not flying. Falling. He had pushed himself too much. But there was a tree, some kind of smamp mangrove-
V extended his wings, aimed himself as best as he could as his vision began to dim, then picked from his memories a snake of the same brown shade as the tree itself, shifted one last time, wrapped around a tree branch, and squeezed tight, just as consciousness left him.
Light met V’s eyes as he awoke slowly once more. He was-
He still clung to the tree. Nothing had come upon him or discovered him while he slumbered. Still, he very cautiously looked around and scented the area, making full use of the serpent’s keen senses.
The area seemed unfamiliar, and not just because the sun had risen. Whatever hole he had made seemed to have been covered by the shifting mud and waters of the swamp. But that also meant that V had no idea where the chamber of his Trial was now.
V shook his head, then took the form of a hawk, and rose from the tree. He had lost the scroll his sire had provided for him. That was regrettable. But the scroll, with its magics and its words, had done what Vaersylkythrix had intended for it to do.
V flew very cautiously; if he knew nothing else about this area, he knew that it was known to his dam. And though V was not yet one day hatched, with no treasure at all to his name, V knew one thing; he had fought his way past his false Trial to ensure that not one more of his clutch-mates would ever undergo it themselves.
With resolve stoked and spirits high, V flew onwards. But, he realized, that was not all that he knew.
“Vaersyl.” he said. “My name is Vaersyl. And I will make you proud. Sire. Father.”