Prestige for Prospero. ~3240 words.
Though he slept, he knew this was no dream. The consciousness of his dragons were with him, both acutely aware of his predicament. They watched quietly, as hunters would, lending their extra perception to him. They knew he woke in his rest and walked in the vision of another. Prospero recognized the smell of burning roots and hair; Even without opening his mouth, he felt a bitter taste fill it. Anxiety wracked his stomach, but his dragons were there to comfort him. Walk on. They would humor her. He let himself follow the scent, feeling the realm closing in behind him, shrinking to lessen the burden of keeping this realm active. It was freezing, but he made his way towards a light and felt his blood grow warmer.
The forest was filled with animals—deer, wolves, birds, bears—but none so prevalent as the rats. They skittered at his feet as he walked. One of them scurried up a tree and hung on a branch before him. Its eyes glinted with a familiar orange light. It clicked its teeth, then—seeing it had their attention—made a small squeak. “So you’ve accepted my invitation. Quite bold of you—though perhaps your dragons bolster that confidence of yours. I’ve no idea the workings between you and your beasts, so let us think of this as a meeting of equals.” Her rat was nearly bald and its skin mottled with brown and pink. It looked domestic, though the bone-like body gave it away as one of her many familiars.
Prospero scoffed. “Your realm, your rules. I know better.”
The rat twitched its whiskers. “Won’t you join us by the fireside? We’re all waiting.” The rats at his feet moved towards the scent of flame and Prospero allowed himself to follow. Her avatar melded back into the horde. They slunk through the brush until they hit a gravel path. Prospero allowed the rats to shepherd him down the path and felt the curtain of darkness behind him grow ever closer. It opened onto a trampled clearing with a pillar of burning wood at its center. Several humanoids surrounded the flame, each gazing at him through the skeletal eyes of animals. The first was a large wolf with greying brown fur; the second a stag with prongs missing; the third a large cat with gashes in its skin; the fourth a large obsidian covered in hair; and the last a fire dragon with nary a scratch on its hide.
“Ah. I thought you meant your rats when you talked about, ‘us.’” The animal-masked people let out a chorus of laughter. He recognized some as his old kin—the wolf had the figure of his sister-figure, and the stag the form of his brother-figure. The cat and insect were unfamiliar to him. The dragon was all-too recognizable as his mentor. Their faces were half-hidden, only revealing their smiles. He returned the expression, though he felt himself growing more nervous by the second. Wounds in this place wouldn’t carry over physically, but they could still leave a sting that lingered into waking.
The wolf spoke first. “It’s been so long since we’ve seen you. So you’re a Rider now? Elemental, at that?” She pointed at his headdress and scoffed. “And what do your beasts think of that?”
“Now, now,” his friend consoled her. “If one of us was going to tame them, it would be him. He’s always been rather soft. You could probably count his human kills with your hand.”
“Nonetheless, it shouldn’t be possible.” The wolf growled, raising her hand towards her mouth and looking perplexed. “Maria left you a gift, didn’t she? But you’re not wearing it. You should have a bit more respect for the dead after she went through all that trouble. Furthermore, it seems you started tracking her.” She held out her hand to show him yet another metal dragon paw; it didn’t quite match the one he had. “We’ve been using things like these to split up and connect. Dreams are useful, of course, but seeing each other in person more so. I was with Maria on that island and saw things of my own. You tamed a Quetzalcoatl. Given their reputation…” she squeezed her hand around the paw. “You don’t plan on using it to kill us, do you?”
The obsidian scoffed. “Are you sure it’s a Quetzalcoatl?” His tone had a bit of incredulity. “There are all kinds of dragons in the Chronoscape. It could have been a look-alike.”
She shook her head, whining. “It was exactly how Maria taught us. Pointed feathers for a bird of prey, the iridescent ones on the bottom, the hidden feet in flight—and a human form. Close enough, anyways. And even—“
“Blood magic,” Maria murmured softly. “Even if it’s not a Quetzalcoatl, it’s just as dangerous.” She reached into one of her travel bags and pulled out a fur cloak. Instead of donning it, she tossed it into the flame. The smell of singed leather and hair filled the area, but the smoke briefly curled into the form of a storm dragon. It dispersed around them and the walls of the instance pushed out a bit. “I also saw that little anomaly. It had some quirks of its own, among it, those dragons.”
Obsidian shook his head again. “I can’t believe that.”
“Nonetheless, it’s true,” Maria replied calmly. The other four were quiet in deference to her. Even after all this time, Maria was the most skilled of them, and a threat to all of them combined. They wouldn’t dare speak against her. She smiled sweetly under the mask of her fire dragon. “But don’t take my word for it. Ask the source himself.” She waved over at Prospero.
He wouldn’t say Ezra was tame, but this wasn’t the right time to go into detail about that situation. “Yes, he’s a real Quetzalcoatl. He has dragons of his own and won’t harm humans.” He knew better than to lie among these people, but skirted the truth as best he could.
The group murmured among themselves, silenced only when Maria lifted a hand. “Yet, you’re still wearing a dragon skull. You may be family yet.”
Prospero paused, trying to collect himself. He had done this once before, he could do it again. “I’m wearing it out of respect for my own kill. When I left, I swore off hunting humans. Now, I won’t even kill dragons. You can’t consider me family if I only hunt feral prey, and I have no intention of changing my methods. When I talked to you about this, you let me go.” Prospero felt a bit of annoyance welling up in his stomach, and it helped quell the bit of anxiety. “What changed? Why did you bother to interfere with my life again? How did you even find me?”
“A family always looks in on each other, no matter where they are,” Maria replied. “It’s only natural that I check in on your safety.”
The stag coughed, doing his best not to interrupt Maria directly, but clearly wanting to speak. Maria waved him forward. He leaned closer to Prospero and the man felt those lifeless black eyes staring into his skull. Of course he would put those false eyes in. “Regardless of how you hunt, I still consider you a brother. What changed is that you hunted and attacked Maria, killed many of her familiars, and even did it in a pack. One other Rider and three dragons, was it? You weren’t using one of our paws, so it was clearly an intended hunt. All she did was kill a dragon. When you left, you said you would not interfere with us. You are the one who changed here. What happened with you?” He sighed.
The stag was probably the weakest of them all; He looked to Prospero as a teacher more than anything, despite being slightly older. His disappointment almost made Prospero flinch. Only the stern watchfulness of his dragons kept him from expressing regret. And did he regret? No, he couldn’t. “I became a dragon Rider and learned a bit more about them. Dragons are just as smart as humans, some a bit more, and not something I can kill.”
The wolf growled at him. “You did not know the dragon. It was just Maria’s way of saying ‘hello.’ She was sure to pick something you wouldn’t care about.”
“But I do. That place is my home and I want to stick to its laws.” He pointed at his current headdress. “This is the last dragon I’ll ever kill. I may not know everyone on the island, but I’ll protect them as if they were my own dragons or family.”
The cougar giggled. “Much too caring for your own good. That’s how poachers die. You could have made one small exception, but you decided to stick your neck out. Don’t expect us to forgive you easily. Right now, you’re the prey, and you need to do your best to skitter out of our way before we close in.”
If all five were hunting him, he was as good as dead. Caliban sent a reassuring emotion. They can’t physically harm you here, and Kolkhis and I will protect your spirit. Once you return, we will protect you with our teeth.
You share my memories, Cali. You know they can hunt dragons like you as a pack.
Kolkhis chuckled. What about dragons like me?
Maria made a small hum, drawing the attention back to her. “Don’t fight, children. I would love to forgive Prospero, and I know exactly what sort of task he can do for us.” She smiled sweetly at him. “Quetzalcoatl feathers sell for quite a fortune. Bring us the feathers of a fully grown dragon and I can accept you into this family again. They are predators, so you can overlook it, can’t you? If you would hunt me for killing one dragon, can’t you hunt it for killing a hundred humans?”
Prospero gritted his teeth. “That happened before I met him. He regrets it now. I have no intention of becoming family with any of you again—“ he looked at the stag, “Even though I care for all of you. But I have a new home, and I have to protect them. The Quetzalcoatl is part of it, and so was the dragon you killed.”
The wolf growled. “Whether you want to be family or not, you do need forgiveness if you want to keep that little home intact. Quetzalcoatl feathers aren’t the only thing that sells well. You know very well how precious elemental dragons are. Their bones, hides, scales, everything…it can all be used and sold. Surely the Quetzalcoatl is an easier price than your own dragons.”
His dragons were eerily quiet now. Were they waiting for what he said? Before he could retort, Maria chimed in. “Of course, you get something in return, beyond just forgiveness. I have thought about it for some time, and I believe you are the most promising of my siblings. I’m growing old, and…bored. It’s about time I choose someone, and I want to choose you.”
“Now, now, Maria. Sure that can’t be true if he won’t even lift his hand against a dragon?” the Obsidian buzzed.
“Actions are irrelevant,” she snapped back. “I raised him from childhood, and I’ve seen how fast he learns. You’ve seen nothing. He is perfectly capable of killing whatever he wants, given a little incentive.”
Prospero stood and dusted the dirt off his clothing. “I’m ready to leave. I’ve said all I needed to.” He looked carefully at each of them. “I’m not going back to how things were.”
Maria smiled at him, pulling out one of her favored knives. “Oh, but dear Prospero, you have no choice in the matter.”
He saw the others grab their weapons.
“You can’t escape without my permission,” Maria cooed. “I’ll let you have a taste of what we’ll do to you, and we’ll see how you feel once you wake up. We’ll give you a nice warning before it happens, so you still have time to reconsider.” She ran her finger across the flat of the blade, then pointed it at him. “Let’s begin, then.”
The walls of the instance closed in, leaving little more than the clearing and the trees lining it. Maria was the first to stand and twirled her blade in one hand. She slammed her hand down to try to slash him and he dodged as best he could. The first movement from her was enough to spur the others into standing and brandishing their own blades. The wolf and stag circled behind them, cutting off his escape—but doing little else. They were hesitating. The insect and cat had no qualms at all causing this stranger to suffer. The insect had a spear that was slightly easier to dodge than a knife, but looked sharp nonetheless; The cat had a large scimitar that he expertly slashed. Instead of dodging the weapon outright, Prospero stayed well out of range. He didn’t think he could dodge that. The rats swarmed around them, biting at his heals and clinging to his legs to weigh him down.
Caliban’s frustration welled up in him as Prospero became slower and slower. Kolkhis was annoyed—though he wouldn’t mind a death for his precious Rider, this dream-like instance would only be a hindrance rather than a solution. Furthermore, how dare the mortals strike at him in the first place? Both clawed at the limits of Prospero’s consciousness, but this dream belonged to someone else. They had no way of leaping into the mind of another to protect their Rider.
Nonetheless, Prospero felt the fury of Caliban and allowed it to take over. He felt the indignance of Kolkhis and let it guide his weapon. He wasn’t alone. He had the strength of his own dragons, even if they couldn’t be there with him. The wolf and stag joined in and it became a hopeless endeavor. He did his best to dodge the blows even as he felt his balance slipping. They managed to get shallow cuts, then deeper, then graver wounds; He was hindered now, but kept going. He managed to slice off the hand of the insect and disarm the stag; The cat kept pressing in and started tearing him up. Through the proximity, he could feel the poacher’s glee at cornering its prey.
He was at the end of his rope, but he wasn’t stupid. He remembered. Even as his blood slipped away, he saw the memories float by of his teacher’s magics. Her whispers to familiars, her prayers over the dead, her ceremonies with the bones…he remembered it all, even if he wasn’t taught directly. The instance was kept alive through the sacrifice of bits of spirits. If he could cut off their flow of power—if he could extinguish the bonfire, then he would be able to end the instance. Everyone would go back to their own bodies and he could consider his course of action. But—how would he?
Caliban growled from afar. Use earth magic to smother the flames.
I don’t know it, though, Prospero replied, doing his best to focus on parrying and dodging. We haven’t trained that far.
He felt a frustrated echo and felt the frustration well up in him just as much. Who knew if it would even work? Caliban roared again, almost pleading with him, Just try it. It can’t hurt more than they are hurting you.
Prospero focused on the earth, doing his best to emulate how Caliban manipulated it. He called out to it as if it was his own dragon. Nothing happened—the dirt remained dirt. They cursed and found themselves backed into the forest.
The poachers closed in and he barely had room to move now. Instead of dealing the finishing blow, the four poachers grabbed him and let Maria close the distance. “You’ve felt death here a few times. Are you sure you want to feel it again? Even if it’s a little lie, we’ll let you go if you just agree with us.”
“Pacts are binding,” he replied. He looked at the blades and scoffed. “Do it. I can take it.”
“Stubborn, aren’t you?” she smiled and let the blade sink into his chest slowly.
The earth rumbled beneath them and knocked them off balance. Maria quickly caught her balance, but the others stumbled and crouched on the ground to keep from falling outright. Prospero knew better than to pull out the knife, but he clutched at his chest anyways. Her eyes darted around the instance. “Who’s there? Who’s interfering?” Her eyes snapped onto Prospero. “Your dragons dare to enter this place?”
Before he could say anything, the dirt beneath them quivered and moved almost like sand. A roar sounded, almost like Caliban’s, but much deeper and quavering. He is no Rider of mine. A voice echoed around them. It didn’t sound spoken, but it shocked him as if someone had shouted into his ears. If the others heard it, they didn’t give any indication. Only you can hear me. You are the only Rider here. The ground beneath the bonfire opened up and smothered the flame, then swallowed the wood whole.
The instance flickered out, leaving Prospero in darkness. Slowly, emerald stones lit up around him, revealing the height of a grand cavern and the silhouette of a beast. “You are interesting,” the creature rumbled. Prospero felt for Caliban and Kolkhis, but the two seemed just as confused as he was. The dragon’s eyes snapped open, revealing glittering emerald stones. It lowered its head so he could see the serrated teeth up close. The dragon spoke out loud and within his mind now, making his head pulse with noise. “Don’t make me regret helping you. You mustn’t die before we meet again.” The dragon whipped its tail into the sides of the cavern and allowed the world to crumble around them.
This time, Prospero truly woke. His heart felt like it would leap from his chest. His entire body burned like fire and he still felt the sting from his virtual wounds. Light poured in from outside–it was well into the day. He stared up at the hatchery ceiling wordlessly. Then, slowly, he remembered everything that happened last night. He saw Ezra still resting near, closer than he had ever been, and shivering with cold. Firefall was outside as well, eyes sleepily watching the two.
From outside, Caliban roared. What did you do to him, Kolkhis?
Kolkhis giggled and slid into the shadows. It’s not my fault someone else dragged him into a vision! It just helped me a little bit, that’s all.
Caliban hissed and stomped in the snow outside, doing his best to disturb the dragon underneath. If he could even reach the dragon, they had no clue—Kolkhis merrily dodged the dragon and taunted him.
Prospero tuned out the dragons and turned his attention to Ezra. After their first few days together, the Quetzalcoatl had never lowered his guard like this. He carefully touched his shoulder, and when he didn’t wake, he stroked his hair quietly. He leaned in and gave a small kiss on the head, then closed their embrace. He wouldn’t give this up for the world.