Tales From Earth:Draco Venatio
On Earth, as in Perplex City, everyone enjoys a good game. However it might not occur to most that humans are not the only ones who like to play games, and not all games are fFor the human eye. Here is a short story about a game mighty dragons of the days of old like to play. (If the rules seem unclear, it's probably because you aren't a dragon!)
A lilting wind rustled through the many reeds and grasses of The Cordian Plain. Nestled complacently alone amidst gentle fauna was a massive stone. It seemed to be sleeping placidly, or daydreaming, or whatever else rocks do when no one is around. It had been there for a very, very long time.
And on this day, as was inevitable to happen once every 13 years, the lilting winds gave way to an increasing thunder of might and fury. Shadows darted across shrubs. Small animals ran for burrows while the mighty thing in the sky swept by. And then another shape careened from the North. And another from the East.
The first dragon to cross the fields, Phenlambiak, a swift gold-and-white dragon, let out a great shrieking roar, which echoed off distant mountains. This was, as the others would know, a greeting. Despite the great breadth of wings and length of body, Phenlambiak landed softly, gracefully. His legs sunk into the soft ground, claws raking away at The Earth.
"Cerenyx!" the massive red dragon of the north bellowed, greeting the third. She too landed with grace, her tail swishing across the tops of wildflowers.
"And you, Strallienne!" the blue dragon replied sharply. Cerenyx circled the giant stone, gliding in with wings outstretched. He landed with agility matched only by his counterparts.
"Then we are short but one," observed Phenlambiak. "It is unlike Jyaktyl to be late."
The three paused, considering what to do. Cancel? A pity if Jyaktyl were simply delayed. Traditions this old should not be ignored. Go look for her? She could, of course, be anywhere in the world. Consider themselves snubbed? No, Jyaktyl was not an especially offensive sort.
"Perhaps a delay while on the way. I received no messengers." The foursome was not often together, but Strallienne was something of a contact point for the rest. Dragons were never known for their social tendencies, but if one wanted to call a dragon social, one would be referring to Strallienne.
"Nor shall you." A voice -- a human voice -- took the three by surprise. It was easy enough to not notice the man approach them before. Who in their right mind would approach three dragons? But to engage them? Swift Phenlambiak pounced across the field, full force, with claws drawn. He aimed to crush the man, but he was not caught flat-footed. The man dodged with stunning prowess and managed to get out the words "Jyaktyl sent me!"
Strallienne and Cerenyx let Phenlambiak handle this, looking on with interest. Phenlambiak let forth a rolling, growling sneer, steam billowing from his nostrils, making sure the man knew with whom he was dealing. "Where is she?"
"I am here to take her place in your game this day."
Strallienne laughed the sort of laugh only a dragon can do. Cerenyx smiled. This seemed to bother the man more than Phenlambiak pouncing on him.
"Of course you are joking. Why have you come, and not Jyaktyl's messenger?" Phenlambiak barked.
"What was your name?" Cerenyx asked.
"Graeme of Drocksworthy" he announced. He sounded fairly proud of the distinction his name yielded, but knew it would have a certain backlash in present company.
"The Dragon Slayer?!?" Strallienne thundered. "Have you slain Jyaktyl!?" She rose of on her hand legs, wings outstretched, every bit of fury within her pouring out. She needed only but to breathe a slight wisp of fire on this man and his days would be ended.
Graeme knew he had to talk fast. It was true, he had slain a dozen dragons. Jyaktyl was his twelfth. He did not do this out of nobility or pureness of heart, but mostly because he was paid to do so. Graeme was, at heart, a rogue who managed to work a niche market helping people deal with their dragon problems. For all their beauty, dragons were of course a scourge upon the lands. Graeme could have spilled lies to soften the truth, but he knew he may as well be honest, so he said, "Yes. I slipped poison into her mutton. Her dying wish was that I should meet you all!" he exclaimed, getting ready to dodge behind rocks or trees, mostly wishing they were not in an open field with almost no cover whatsoever.
Phenlambiak let out a rolling laugh. "I'll bet she did!"
"She said killing a dragon is easy, but beating one is much harder, and if I wanted to see a true challenge, I am to come to play your game in her place."
"He lies! The lies of man are not for us to burden ourselves with!" Strallienne looked at Graeme and rolled out a foul snarl.
"It is as she has said!" Graeme said swiftly.
"I believe him," Cerenyx announced calmly. "Only a fool would suggest such a notion." He turned to Graeme. "But does he have any idea how to play our game? Surely Jyaktyl would not have us teach him all the subtleties."
Graeme was visibly calmer, although his life was still on the line. "I have spent some years studying ancient texts. Your game is not unknown to men. Although I surely cannot be so presumptuous as to know all the intricacies, nor have I had centuries to dwell on strategies, I have devoted my time almost entirely to..."
"Yes, yes, we are all very impressed." Phenlambiak cut him off. "A pity it was all for naught." He prowled towards Graeme, eyes gleaming.
"Gkrr'whrimmm!" Cerenyx said sharply in a deep and solid voice. Graeme had no idea if that was a word or a growl.
"HRoarhh'Ymoirrrr!" Phenlambiak countered. Graeme now counted himself as one of only a few humans ever to hear a dragon argument. There were words there, he was sure of it. He was also pretty sure he didn't want to know what they meant.
Strallienne screeched, stretching her neck high and letting out a great blast of breathy fire. Graeme could feel the heat from where he stood, and was afraid, but stood his ground.
"It is Jyaktyl's will!" Cerenyx demanded. "There is no denying the dying wishes of another!"
Phenlambiak looked annoyed, irritated, and defeated. He hung his head. "It is Jyaktyl's will." Graeme had slain dragons for years, but defeat was an expression he had never seen. He was amazed.
Strallienne looked at Phenlambiak. She too bowed her head, irritated. "It is Jyaktyl's will." She looked back at Graeme, then at Cerenyx. "But he would do well not to try my patience. Jyaktyl may have wanted him to join the game, but she said nothing about how he was to walk away from it."
Cerenyx assumed the position at the head of the rock. Despite all the fierceness of actions in the plains today, the mighty stone still seemed to be daydreaming.
Phenlambiak dragged a claw across the top of the stone, scoring it's ancient surface, as if to wake it up. Cerenyx blew an icy wind across the rock. Strallienne bellowed a burst of flame across the rock. The three looked at Graeme. "Well? Go on, breathe on it!" demanded Strallienne impatiently. Graeme strode to the stone. He hadn't really considered where the game was to be played exactly. The stone slab was nearly as tall as he was. He looked at it, thinking he probably should do whatever seems right, and exhaled all his lungs contained, across the surface of the stone. He almost felt as though he should be breathing fire himself. And with that, the stone began to glow, and all the playing pieces shimmered into view. "Interesting," Graeme thought.
Cerenyx began. He took a number of pieces off a pile, placed some on the board, and handed out others to the other players. The pieces were like great chunks of polished stone. Graeme could hold no more than one at a time. He arranged them on his side of the board, while the others did likewise. Phenlambiak noticed he was, in fact, able to get the setup right. There may be hope for this human yet.
Cerenyx spoke up "Of course, you probably think we're going to kill you after the game, Graeme of Drocksworthy."
"I do, yes." Graeme said with steely gaze. He hadn't really thought about that part, but then he hadn't really expected he'd get this far. Death was something of a given, really.
"Well then we'd better make it more interesting. We'll only kill you if you lose this game. If you win, you will come back in 13 years and play again." Strallienne seemed to like this idea very little, but seemed to quickly realize he would not win. There was of course no way he actually could win. Absurd. This was nothing more than posturing anyway. "Fine" she puffed.
Phenlambiak placed his opening pieces on the board. He was using a standard opening. Graeme countered in kind. He needed to climb on top of the large stone slab to reach, and then he hauled two pieces into place. Strallienne placed hers next, barely waiting until Graeme had scurried off the playing board area before placing a piece right where he was standing. Cerenyx started a counter move in another corner of the board, boldly using 3 pieces to secure his station.
Phenlambiak started the second round, advancing mostly on Cerenyx's pieces. Not the wisest move, but a safe one. Graeme saw Strallienne couldn't possibly achieve the next best counter-move against him, so he placed one piece soundly in the middle of hers. She growled, seeing that he was, in fact, a decent player. She placed one piece across from Phenlambiak's opening bastion, and one piece between Graeme's opening move and advance, splitting his pieces up. This of course also broke up her own pieces. She was obviously trying to cover multiple angles. Cerenyx concluded this round by doubling up what he had before. This was a very risky tactic. Phenlambiak saw all this and was amused, mostly at Graeme who was doing quite well.
Phenlambiak began the third and final round. He paused thoughtfully. The third round was where the whole game was won or lost. He took his time, sinking into deep thought. The sun settled in the West and rose again in the East. Days passed. Seasons churned. Eons lapsed. Cerenyx cleared his throat, breaking the tension. Phenlambiak placed four pieces around the board in careful precision. It was Graeme's last move, so he studied the board. When … suddenly … Graeme couldn't believe it! He might just have a chance! He thought a moment to make sure he wasn't missing anything, and then dragged three pieces onto the board. This was a very sweeping play! His heart thundered! Strallienne's eyes widened. She saw it too. She knew she couldn't win. She placed one piece just to the left of one of Graeme's. A defeatist's action. Cerenyx played upon what was taking shape, knowing he too had lost.
All assembled knew who the winner was. Phenlambiak stood fully upright announcing his congratulations. Graeme couldn't believe it! He had won! Cerenyx gave a roar into the evening sky. Strallienne was utterly beside herself, speechless and motionless.
"Another 13 years," Cerenyx announced. "Three years for each of us, and one year for all of us!"
Strallienne screamed harshly as only dragons can do, stretching her wings far and wide. She blew fire angrily into the sky, as she ran some steps across the field until she took flight. Gigantic wings slashed at the air.
Graeme smiled, knowing what he had won. But then quickly became fearful. She would not forget this. Ever. A fair game among friends is one thing. But defeat to a human? An absolute insult. He looked at Phenlambiak and Cerenyx. "I should go. Quickly."
Cerenyx raised an eyebrow. "Yes. You should."
Graeme ran off across the Cordian Plain, into the woods, abundant joy bounding inside him.
"You know." said Cerenyx "counter-rebuffing is never a good idea when you have the center board to yourself like that."
"You don't say?" Phenlambiak looked back at him. "What a bad move for me then. I suppose the man will eventually realize this, as well. Probably just as Jyaktyl rips his heart out. The fool. You would think someone like that would know you cannot poison a swamp dragon." He stretched out his wings. "Another 13 years then, old friend?"
"Indeed." And with that, the dragons went their separate ways. A lilting wind rustled through the many reeds and grasses, and the playing board and pieces sifted off into dust and blew gently away, leaving only a daydreaming rock alone in the field.
Scott Myers, 2005