( Note: There is a newer revision to this chapter. This is the first draft.)
The young dragon Iorneste flew down to the meeting point, a glade near the north tunnel gate, the secret way, and the only way that humans could enter or leave the dragon homeland of Kaer Drac. He was late for this meeting, by the reckoning of humans, but dragons had always appointed themselves the keepers of time, and with so much of it available to them, rarely hurried in the way of shorter-lived races. By the standards of his own kind, Iorneste would have been considered remarkably punctual, but this was also a function of his youth and inexperience.
The oldest of humans were still older than Iorneste. He had not yet invested a century, and this was the smallest unit of measurement of time that some of the eldest of the Drac even considered relevant. It was his seventy-fifth birthday, and with it he gained a small measure of prestige and acceptance, about to take his first test amongst his people, the First Exile.
Dragons were not incredibly social, and would often withdraw from the world as some particular interest took them. Introspection was a quality that every dragon possessed to some degree, exceptional intelligence and quick-wittedness were the norm amongst all true Dracs, but variants existed in other places as well, some of them possessing no more than bestial intelligence.
Though many called them ‘dragons’, and they were not opposed to this appellation, not every dragon was a Drac.
Iorneste spotted a small figure on the ground below, a tiny dot from his vantage point, and spiraled down lazily, circling to the ground. He reminded himself too late that he should pay more attention to this flight, as it would be his very last for the next twenty-five years.
As he drew closer, his keen eyes could identify Mourne, the respected human kiin and appointed trainer of young dragons such as himself. Those of his kind who were interested watched his departure remotely. Though he was no longer a hatchling, Iorneste would need to learn to blend in amongst the humans as one of their own. His lesson started today, and Mourne had the honor of being his escort and his mentor of humankind.
Iorneste landed gracefully on the ground before Mourne, his claws flexing and leaving indentations in the ground before him. Iorneste inclined his head and spoke clearly, his wings flapping twice more before folding behind his back. He settled back onto his haunches, his tail curling around him, the tip of it tapping idly at his scaly temple. Then he spoke, in a soft, but rich voice, like smoothed velvet. “Good day to you, Mourne. I am here to begin the First Exile, and submit myself to your training to become human, like you.”
Mourne smiled, but only just, and answered him with a bow. “It is my honor and pleasure to do so, Iorneste. Have you considered what your name will be?”
“Humans have shorter names, yes?”
“Not always. Nobility and females often have longer ones. But we like to have short names because it saves time.”
Mourne chuckled at that, and nodded. “Yes. One of the hardest things the Drac will ever have to learn, is that humans die. Most of them are dead before a Drac begins the First Exile.”
“This thought horrifies me,” Iorneste said, and shifted uncomfortably.
“It horrifies us, too. So we do what we can with the life we have. Every day matters. Every day is important.”
“I can see your reasoning. I had not considered twenty five years so significant, but now I can see that it must be.”
Mourne nodded. “You are only just beginning to see. The elders of your kind think it important that all Drac be able to participate in that world, if only to observe, to learn.”
“I know all of this, human.”
“First lesson: Don’t call me ‘human’. Humans don’t call each other ‘human’.”
“It’s okay. We should probably get started. The sooner you look like a human, the sooner you can start acting like one.” He walked up to Iorneste, patting his hide in a friendly manner. “Once you have taken the form, and have made whatever modifications you want, I will execute the Binding, and the First Exile will begin, and with it your training.”
Iorneste began to concentrate, the High Art coming to him as naturally as breathing, as flying. He started with Mourne as a base in his mind, performing a few simple innate calculations, and shifting his density somewhat. Mourne watched as the dragon’s form began to shift before his eyes. The tail began to retract, legs began to grow comparatively longer, while his front legs began to grow shorter and retract, grow a bit more slender. The claws melted away into articulate fingers, while his scale shifted downward fourfold. The scales melted away, losing definition and smoothing into skin. Last to go, a bit tellingly, were his wings. Iorneste let out a palpable sigh of regret as they faded away.
Once he was standing on two legs, Iorneste promptly fell over, landing on his rump with an “oof!”
“You’re a bit too orange,” Mourne said critically, biting his lower lip. Iorneste concentrated a bit, shifting to a light tan. “Better. Your eyes are a bit too red, unless you want to attract attention. Also, you should probably have at least some hair, somewhere.”
“Give me your hand, Mourne.” Iorneste said. Mourne helped him to his feet, and he immediately began to wobble, falling foward and slapping his hands around Mourne’s neck to keep from falling again. Mourne struggled to remain standing, as much of Iorneste’s strength still remained, regardless of his form. “This is…strange,” Iorneste remarked, and waited for Mourne to steady him.
“Sorry, just hold me up for a second, I needed a closer look at you.” Iorneste gained blonde eyebrows, a more prominent nose, and a long mane of pale blonde hair. Stubble appeared on his face, and his crimson eyes lost the slits, becoming a rich and quite arresting blue.
Mourne studied him for a moment, looking up and down and then coughed delicately. “One more thing.” He pulled his pants down and pointed meaningfully.
“Ohhhh, so that’s what it looks like.”
“I suppose it is. Should mine be bigger, or is yours normal?”
Mourne lost all of his composure, pulling up his pants and beginning to laugh uproariously. Iorneste chuckled along just because it was contagious, but still waited to understand. “Well, Iorneste…” he said, laughing. “If you gave any man a chance to make it bigger, he would always want to make it bigger, so…”
“Definitely bigger, then. Okay. Like this?”
“They’ll write songs about you.”
“Superb! Anything else?”
Mourne looked him over critically, walking around him in a circle. This was, after all, going to be Iorneste’s primary form for the next quarter century, but in the end he could find nothing to object to. “I think you’re good. I see you’re balancing on two legs for now, but can you walk?”
Iorneste sniffed. “Of course I can walk.” He took an experimental step, and buckled forward, and caught himself on the ground with his left arm.
“First thing’s first then,” Mourne said, and began with the most basic human instruction of all, how to move from crawling, to walking.
Walking took a couple hours to master, running took a bit less time. Iorneste was a tireless runner, and could almost jog faster than Mourne could sprint. He could leap incredibly high distances, and after a short time of practice possessed a natural grace. He could run up a tree and backflip, perform cartwheels, somersaults, and handstands, and by the end of the training, it was Mourne who was left exhausted, sitting down on a rock and taking a drink of water from a wizened leather skin.
“It’s not fair,” Mourne said, shaking his head as he watched Iorneste climbing a tree nearby. “You’re a better human than humans are,”
“Ahh,” Iorneste said, smiling, “But I merely look human.” As if to prove his point, the branch of the tree he was holding onto broke, sending him plummeting to the ground, breaking several more branches on the way, before landing with a palpable slam against the ground that Mourne could feel vibrate up through his feet.
“For instance,” Iorneste said, pulling branches out of his hair and emerging from the woods unphased, “I still possess most of the weight of my natural size. It’s just hidden elsewhere.”
Mourne stood up and pointed to the entrance to the tunnel nearby. “I’ve placed some things nearby. A few things to get us started on our journey. You’ll choose your name, and we’ll discuss our story of your origin in the world beyond, and then I’ll perform the Binding, and then we’ll be on our way.”
Iorneste felt a warm thrill of excitement fill him. Though he’d taken other forms before as an experiment, he was coming to enjoy the human form. Though severely limiting in many ways, there was something undecidedly appealing about the form, and seeing things from a lower and more ground-limited perspective was already giving him new insights. “I am anxious to get started, Mourne friend. I think you will be a good teacher.”
“So formal,” he said, but gave Iorneste a friendly smile when he said it. He led the young drake over to the tunnel, which was human-sized, not dragon-sized. The entrance had already been rolled back waiting for them, but it would close behind them when they left, ending only in solid rock for other non-magical visitors who might chance upon the location. Next to the doorway stood a couple wooden crates, atop which was a burning oil lantern. Two backpacks rested atop a fine wooden chest beside the door.
“Have you thought of a name?”
“Yorn of Summersgard”, said Iorneste.
“It will do. Why Summersgard?”
Iorneste shrugged his bare shoulders and recited from memory, “Its people are fair-skinned, they hail from lands not too far distant, and their physical features are characterized by hair of exquisite blondness, and eyes of sea green.”
Mourne nodded. “You’ve been studying, that’s good. Have you given any thought to your occupation, or at least what we shall tell others your occupation might be?”
Iorneste shook his head, his pale hair flying with the effort. “Some ideas, perhaps? It is hard to invent a story without feeling unoriginal.”
“Most people’s stories are simple. No one is completely original.”
“Why would you spend such a short lifespan attempting to be the same as everyone else?”
“We don’t attempt to be, well...not always. But we have to work in groups. It’s the only advantage we have over races like the Drac.”
“I see. So in seeking so much individuality, the Drac are incapable of working as a group?”
“Iorn,” Mourne said to him with a steady look, “There are things it is not even safe for me to speculate on, as one of the kiin. But I will say that humans and Drac are different, possessing their own strengths and weaknesses. Objectively, the Drac might say that their unwillingness to work together is a weakness, but for every choice there is consequence. Starting with the choice of profession. Do you have any skills?”
“Flight. Magic. I only read sixty languages or so, hardly anything special.”
Mourne shook his head, smiling. “I don’t think there is a single living human who knows sixty written languages. You could be a Scribe.”
“What does a Scribe do? Lots of writing?”
“Yes, and translation.”
“But I can’t write.”
Mourne blinked. “What do you mean, you can’t write?”
“I’ve never used a pen before, Mourne. This is my first time having hands.”
Mourne sighed. “Your handwriting would be terrible at first, but if you’re an apprentice scribe, you could certainly learn.”
“I don’t know, Mourne. While I would like to learn to write, I’m not sure if I want to spend all my time writing for people who should be learning to write for themselves.”
Mourne took a moment to look around the clearing, letting out a deep exhalation of breath. Iorneste, realizing he should probably start taking notes, mimicked the gestures. He found it particularly interesting how Mourne shifted his weight unconsciously from leg to leg. For creatures who spent so much time standing on two legs, they appeared to be ill-suited for it. At closer inspection, he had also found the expressions on his monkey face to be much more varied than he’d initially thought. He was doing something with his lips, the tufts of hair above his dark eyes were drawn low, and wrinkles had appeared on his forehead. One hand reached up and stroked his chin, and the short black beard that grew there.
Iorneste, blessed with the patience of his kind, merely waited for Mourne to finish his thought. Waiting for his elders to finish a thought had often taken days, but Mourne only left him waiting for a few moments.
“Flight is not possible,” said Mourne, turning to look back at Iorneste. Catching the dragon mimicking his exact pose and expression he smiled involuntarily, before quickly covering the gesture and pretending not to notice. Unsettlingly, he watched the mirror of his expressions flicker and disappear on Iorneste’s face, who was watching him with a focus and determination that went beyond unnerving. I must always remember, Mourne thought, That he is still one of the Drac. “And Magic as well.”
Iorneste blinked in surprise at that. “No magic?”
“It is a condition of the binding.”
“Forgive me, Mourne, but it is not possible to separate one of the Drac from their magic. We are creatures of magic, and without it we would die.”
“I know that, it’s just...it’s a tool. But a powerful tool, and no human mage uses magic the same way as one of the Drac. It’s a tell. You might advertise yourself as a Mage and try to make your way among humans as one, but any other mage who saw you performing magic would know you were doing something different than they--and those with sufficient experience would know you for what you are immediately.”
“I see,” Iorneste sad, staring down at the ground in melancholy. “This is harder than giving up than my wings.”
“I didn’t say you could never use magic. Just that you should never use it overtly, in the sight of others, and you definitely shouldn’t pretend to be a mage. Better to keep that a secret. You will be keeping many secrets as it is. What is one more?”
Iorneste looked up quickly and beamed, mollified. “I understand! This I can do! But…” he reached up and stroked his chin in an earlier imitation of Mourne. “If I am not to make use of my skills, what should I be?”
“That is for you to decide, Iorneste. I am not permitted to choose your path, only explain which paths you are not permitted to tread, and answer your questions.”
“Well, I have great strength for a human. What sorts of occupations do humans with great strength generally take?”
Mourne nodded. “You not only have great strength. You have too much strength. You will probably have to pretend to be less strong than you actually are if you are not to reveal yourself.”
“How will I know what is normal?”
“You will have to observe. But in general, hedge your bets in favor of weakness. For you what seems very weak will still be considered acceptable to us. But to answer your question, there is no single answer. Some with great strength are laborers, tradesmen like blacksmiths are known for their strength, and then of course there are the martial professions. Warriors and duellists, mercenaries and knights. Anyone who wields a heavy blade and carries armor on their person will require a certain measure of strength.”
Iorneste smiled. “I have read many of these stories. Your people take much pride in your warriors. Some of them even slayed Drac once, if the stories are to be believed.”
“That is correct, before the Drac retired here, to their ancestral home. All the more reason to keep yourself hidden, to learn to walk as a human without drawing too much attention to your true nature.”
Iorneste walked over to the chest and then up to the open doorway leading out into the world beyond. “Tell me, Mourne...have you ever been beyond the Wall?”
Mourne walked over to join him, standing at his side and looking down the long tunnel. “Yes. Many times. I would not be much of a guide if I had not.”
Iorneste was quiet for a long moment, and then started to laugh. It was a private laugh, the kind when one is surprised by their own thoughts. “I know my origin story, as you put it, Mourne.”
“Yes. I’m going to be a dragon slayer.”
by the Feline Inferno, Fireytika