( Note: This chapter has been revised. Click here for the first draft.)
Within the spacious confines of the great dragon library, young Iorneste looked about with complicated feelings about the world he was leaving behind.
Being of the proud race of great wyrms called Drac, spirits of magic and emotion made flesh, wise and powerful beyond all imagining, with a culture that spanned the ages, he felt the proud record of his people, and was proud to be of them. He had read of their accomplishments, and heard stories of their ancient deeds, some from their very lips, spoken with long pauses in the articulate voices of those unsullied by time.
Indeed, dragons were not sullied by time at all. Dragons were enriched by it. Dragons were the only known creatures who grew larger and more powerful as they grew into antiquity, and from their seed the very gods were born.
By that hallowed standard, Iorneste felt very sullied and unrefined. He had done his best to prepare for the world beyond Kaer Drac, and had devoured large sections of his sire Rrachma's library, although this was simply a matter of course, for a book wyrm.
History was a subject that provided him endless fascination, mathematics had become something of an idle pasttime, and in some older editions he had amused himself by correcting mistakes. Philosophy had also been a recent interest of his, bolstered by a side helping of anatomy. The collected love poems of Elshalle would often do for some light reading. Epic tales of the Elvarien people and the fallen Human empire for an afternoon snack.
By evening he had amassed a pile of books, marking his achievements and would reflect upon them until morning. If Rrachma was home, they would often discuss them, as the librarian had read every book in the great library, and amused himself rereading them. However, discussing the contents of a loved book, an old and familiar friend, with someone who had just read it for the first time was, Rrachma had often told him, one of life's greatest treasures.
Not all Drac were so fortunate as to be raised within the library and lair of one of the few truly independent and respected males within Kaer Drac, as his sire was fond of reminding him. But he had only led him to the books, and taught him the languages they were written in. Rrachma had needed to give him no further encouragement to delve deep into those texts and tomes that spanned years and cultures, and answered questions which no living mortal even knew to ask anymore.
It seemed to him that he had received a fortunate upbringing, and a fortunate life, and was of the most fortunate race ever seen on fair Runea. There had been few complaints in his life.
But also few adventures.
Every Drac's name was two syllables, given by each parent. Neither consulted with the other prior to choosing the name, both were spoken together at the Naming once that hatchling had proven true as one of the Drac, and had not been born as one of the lesser wyrms, and it was said the names given were an indication of the destiny of the Drac, and of their aptitudes.
His mother, the great Obsidian matriarch Lorchyra, had spoken the name Iorn. His sire, Rrachma, had spoken Este.
Iorn meant Opposition.
Este meant Art.
So depending how one interpreted it, he was either going to oppose artists or he was going to refine opposition into an art form.
He thought it was a silly superstition.
He had lingered too long, fully aware that he would not be able to bring The Completed Histories of the North along with him on his journey, and content to read just one more chapter, which turned into finishing the book, and moving on to the next volume of the histories, just to read the first chapter and get an idea of what he could expect when he returned. Then, sometime later, he realized that he had finished the entire volume, and that there remained one more volume in the series, one more volume to complete the set.
If he read it, then he could complete the Completed Histories of the North, and not have it nagging him for the next twenty-five years.
Hmm. Dragons did not care much about punctuality, and he was a speedy reader. What was one more?
By the time he left, daylight was threatening to turn to dusk, and the suns were lowering in the sky. He beat his wings hard, feeling the aethir surround him, reaching into its channels to pull himself aloft, swiftly streaming through the air. While on the ground he was heavy indeed, but once in the air he was a feather, the very wind itself. He made very good time to the meeting place, despite the late hour.
He 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 have paid more attention to this flight, as it was to 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.
He landed on the ground before Mourne, his claws flexing and leaving indentations in the earth. His wings flapped twice more before folding behind his back. He settled back onto his haunches, his tail curling around his body. “Good day to you, Mourne,” he said, inclining his head to show respect, “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 with a bow. “It is my honor and pleasure to do so, Iorneste. I was beginning to wonder if you were coming."
"I was detained by a book, I must confess."
"A common occurrence for humans as well. I, myself, have often found myself so detained. In terms of finding common ground, we are off to a good start already."
It was good to see that his mentor was to be so agreeable, and he dipped his head low to Mourne with respect, rustling his wings. "I am anxious to begin. How should we start?"
"Let us start simply. Have you considered what your name will be?”
“Humans have shorter names, yes?”
“Not always. Nobility often have longer ones. But we like to have short names because it saves time.”
Mourne 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,” he said. He felt the shiver begin in the ruff of coal black fur at the nape of his neck and slither all the way to the end of his tail.
“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.” He had attempted to consider this from the vantage point of humanity, a bit of preliminary study before his First Exile, but the notion that—had he been born human—he would have met his end years ago was a thought that saddened him. How often they must reach the end of life, wishing they had more time!
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’.”
"Apology accepted. We should probably get started. The sooner you look like a human, the sooner you can start acting like one." Mourne walked up to him, 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."
"I am eager to get started, friend Mourne." He concentrated, the High Art coming to him as naturally as breathing, as flying. Shapeshifting was hard to teach, and relied mostly on intuition, but he had practiced this many times in his years as a premegaunte. He used Mourne as a base in his mind, making a few adjustments, and began to shift his density. He retracted his tail, his front legs shortening, with his back legs growing comparatively longer, even as he reduced his scale fourfold, compressing some of his mass into the between place, the aerte. Next he addressed the problem of his claws, feeling them melt into articulate, albeit talon-less fingers, while his feet were adjusted to match the deformed, club-like phalanges that humans walked on. His obsidian scales lost color and definition, smoothing into skin. Last to go were his wings, and he let out a sigh, feeling their loss most keenly.
Once he was standing on two legs, he staggered and fell over, landing on his rump with an “oof!”
“You’re a bit too orange,” Mourne said, biting his lower lip.
He 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,” he said.
Mourne tried to help him to his feet, straining with the effort, feet slipping on the ground. Once he was upright, Iorneste wobbled, falling forward and slapping his hands around Mourne’s neck. For his part, Mourne bore his mass well, albeit with a buckling of his knees and a grimace.
His eyes were at a level more conducive to study of a live human specimen, but his brain had not yet adjusted to the new perspective. “This is...strange,” he said.
He studied Mourne more carefully at proximity. He added blonde eyebrows, a more prominent nose, and a long mane of pale blonde hair. Pores and fine blonde hairs appeared on his face, and his crimson eyes lost the slits. He considered a few different eye color choices, eventually deciding on a deep blue, since that was the color of the sun on his scales.
Mourne studied him in return, looking up and down. Then he stopped, and coughed delicately. “One more thing.”
The kiin pulled his pants down and pointed.
“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.
For his part, he chuckled along with Mourne just because it was contagious, but still felt he was missing something.
“Well, Iorneste...” Mourne said, still laughing. “If you gave any man a chance to make it bigger, he would always want to make it bigger, so...”
“Definitely bigger, then. How about like this?”
“They will write songs about you.”
“Superb! Anything else?”
Mourne inspected him, walking around him in a circle, but in the end it seemed he found nothing objectionable. “This will do. I see you are balancing on two legs for now, but can you walk?”
“Of course I can walk.” He took an experimental step, and buckled forward, landing on his hands and knees.
“First thing’s first then,” Mourne said, and began with what he described as the most basic human instruction of all: how to move from crawling, to walking.
Walking took him a couple somewhat frustrating hours to master, running took a bit less time. By Mourne's standards, he was pronounced a tireless runner, and could jog faster than Mourne could sprint. The natural benefits of his strength allowed him to leap incredibly high distances, again using Mourne as a standard for comparison. His mentor demonstrated a few more athletic feats, performing cartwheels, somersaults, and handstands, although the last was demonstrated more as a proof of concept.
Iorneste repeated each of these to Mourne’s satisfaction and by the end of the orientation, it was Mourne who was left exhausted, sitting down on a rock and taking a drink of water from a wizened leather skin.
He was later attempting to add tree climbing to his repertoire of skills, when Mourne spoke from below. “This is quite the exhibition, Iorneste. And cruelly unfair. With almost no training, in a few hours, you are a better athlete than any one of us. Yet among your kind, you are barely a teenager.”
“Ahh,” he said, “But I merely look human.” As if to prove this point, the branch of the tree he was holding onto broke, sending him plummeting to the ground, breaking several more branches on the way. Mourne jumped with alarm just before he slammed into the ground.
“For instance,” he continued, unphased, pulling branches out of his hair and emerging from the woods, “I still possess most of the weight of my natural size. It’s just hidden elsewhere.”
“Yes,” Mourne said. “You are heavier than any human has a right to be, stronger, faster, more resilient, and with magic on top of that it is simply too much power to be given to a new haergaunte loose in a strange land. That is what the Binding is for. And now that I mention it, and considering your lateness, we should begin."
The kiin stood up and pointed to the entrance to the tunnel nearby. “They have placed some items here for us, a few things to get us started on our journey. The chest should provide us with anything we need to settle your identity. 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. Then we’ll be on our way. Simple, yes?”
“I am eager to get started, Mourne friend. I think you will be a good teacher.”
“So formal,” Mourne said, but his smile was warm as he said it. A very nice smile, even by a dragon's standards. The kiin led him over to the tunnel, which was human-sized, not dragon-sized. There was a fine wooden chest waiting to be opened, and two stuffed backpacks beside it.
“Have you thought of a name?”
"Yorn of Summersgard," he said.
“That will do. Why Summersgard?”
He shrugged his shoulders and recited from memory, “Its ancestral people are fair-skinned, characterized by hair of exquisite silver-blond, but now their lands are host to the only neutral state within the Many Kingdoms. It houses the Great Academy, where the lords of many lands send their sons and daughters to be educated, and who have all contributed to a pact of peace within its borders. Thus it also serves as a center for politics and a neutral ground where treaties are made.”
Mourne nodded. “You’ve been studying, that’s good. Is that Fellswine?”
“Caperra. The Fall of Olde Summersgarde, it's from the introduction. Page thirty-six, second paragraph.”
“Impressive, Iorneste! A memory like yours is rare, even among dragons. Have you given any thought to your occupation, or at least what we shall tell others your occupation might be?”
He shook his head. “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 are also very well-read. You could be a scribe.”
“What does a scribe do? Writing?”
“Yes, and translation.”
“But I cannot write.”
Mourne blinked. “What do you mean, you cannot write?”
“I’ve never used a pen before, Mourne. This is my first time having hands.”
Mourne shrugged. “Your handwriting would be terrible at first, but if you’re an apprentice scribe, you could certainly learn.”
“I do not know, Mourne. While I would like to learn to write, I am 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 realized he should probably start taking notes, and 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 had initially thought. The man 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.
He 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, returning his attention to Iorneste. “Nor magic either.”
He blinked. “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, and it is a powerful tool. But no human mage uses magic the same way as one of the Drac. It’s a tell. An experienced human mage who saw you performing magic would know you aren’t doing the same thing they are doing.”
“I see,” he said, staring down at the ground and feeling melancholy. “This is harder than giving up my wings.”
“I didn’t say you could never use magic. Conditional amendments to the Binding are occasionally permitted. 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?”
He felt such a sense of relief, and how well his mentor had explained the situation. This was a very good sign of things to come. “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 do have great strength for a human. What sorts of occupations do humans with great strength generally possess?”
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 really 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.”
An idea began to take hold, and a smile formed with it. “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, leaving the world to humankind. All the more reason to keep yourself hidden, to learn to walk as a human without drawing 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.”
"So outside of the bounds you mentioned, I can choose any path I wish?"
Mourne nodded. "Yes, I believe I've covered the restrictions."
He thought of his dragon mentor, Rrachma, and of how amused and horrified he would be by what he was about to do. He laughed to himself, surprised by his 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