Susan, Chosen One in potentia, looked at the Dragon, and reconsidered her career choices.
The Dragon was half a mile away and seemed intent on nothing in particular, which is why Susan had the opportunity to be reflective. Were it closer, or a bit hungrier, she would’ve been running. Not that it would have done any good; but running gives you something to do while the Dragon’s breath blasts you from living, thinking being to charred bits of discarded cinder.
It was not Susan’s first Dragon; she had fled her village ahead of a small swarm of them. Well, three; but when you’re Dragons, three is more than enough. For just about anything.
Since then, she had considered a number of possible vocational arcs. Early marriage seemed unpleasant. Working on a farm seemed unpleasant. Becoming a monk required trying to lower her voice several octaves and pretending she had the beginnings of facial hair, and also seemed unpleasant; it exposed you to books, but mostly so you could copy them, one at a time.
Being a Chosen One was where it was at. It gave you an excuse to read as many books as you could get your hands on. Susan didn’t know a whole lot about Warlockry, but she knew that magic-users were seldom seen without two things: small pointy sticks, and books. It was generally agreed that the sticks had something to do with spells, of which she knew none; but that the books were the first step towards spells, and other knowledge besides. Susan could read, and had re-read both of her town’s books twice, which is as many times as she’d been allowed near them.
She didn’t think that her local Abbot really thought she was Chosen, but the Abbot was very old, very wise, and—perhaps—had, in her flinty interior, a certain soft spot for readers. Susan had been told she could read anything and everything within the Abbey’s library, so long as she remained silent at all times, put everything back exactly where she found it, and—in the Abbot’s unforgettable wording—“If, at any time, one of the precious scrolls, tomes, manuscripts, or parchments which have been given unto my keeping develops, while in your proximity, the smallest tear, the tiniest crease, even the hint of a single stain, I will—”
“You’ll have me tanned and made into parchment in its stead?” interrupted Susan.
The Abbot sniffed. “Our order does not, of course, engage in such things, nor have we ever engaged in such practices, so far as anyone currently alive is aware.” She attenuated a thousand-furlong stare in Susan’s direction. “However, The Dark Lord has no such qualms, and would be tremendously generous to whomever brought specific knowledge of your whereabouts, particularly if they are somewhere convenient, such as our oubliette.”
Susan shuddered. “You have an oubliette?”
The Abbot’s eyes seemed to drift, almost unconsciously, to the floor.
“If we did, I’m sure no-one would know.”
Susan thought back to the monastery, to its humble-but-helpful monks, its humble-but-helpful little library (“Little”! She’d never seen so many words in her entire life!) and its not-particularly-humble-but-helpful-in-a-terrifying-sort-of-way Abbot.
She still remembered the Abbot’s final words to her. “Dragons, eh? Good choice. I like your interesting theories about the unexplained lore, and if you get things wrong, most of them will fry you almost immediately, and only a very small number have been known to torture their prey over extremely extended periods of time.”
Susan was far, far too young to drink. Not by the standards of her world or her times, but by the standards of the moral, upright folks who are reading this tale. So the flask she pulled from her pocket definitely, definitely contained orange juice.
Well. It was orange, at any rate.
She sighed deeply and started at the Dragon again. She took some care to check if she was casting any appreciable shadows, or if the wind was blowing in her direction. It was not.
She sat down and started thinking about what to do.
There were probably upcoming paths which didn’t involve getting eaten by a Dragon.
Some of those paths included being torched by a Dragon.
Some involved being clawed to bits by a Dragon.
Some involved being taken, kicking and screaming, back to its nest, to feed its young. (This was distinct from the fear of being eaten by a Dragon, since it was the fear of being eaten by multiple dragons.)
Almost certainly none of those paths resulted in being a Chosen One, though.
Susan had been denied the more traditional method through complicated circumstances, mostly involving the traditional method being dumber than attempting to protect your face by wearing a helmet craved from a massive beehive full of disgruntled wasps.
It meant that she was acting without guidance, without help, without much assistance of any kind other than a tattered and ratty scroll of rather rubbishy fiction claiming to be by a Dark Lord, a story so ridiculous and implausible that she held on to it just in case, by some sheer cosmic mischance, the author accidentally said anything of value.
You don’t really have to have a mentor to know that if you really, really want to get out of your league, you go in search of something huge and magical and fatal.
It had taken Susan six months to track this Dragon down. She’d grown an alarming two inches taller, learned how to bean rabbits with rocks and cook them acceptably, and gained exactly zero patience with the world so far.
That didn’t mean she was ready to exit it just yet, though.
Dragons are old; they would be from ‘time immemorial’, except that they remember all of it. They dislike and disbelieve in coincidence. They are beings of unutterable dignity and intellect, and a nearly-fatal flair for the dramatic.
(Fun fact: of the very, very, very, very few Dragons ever actually killed by knights, 99.98% of them did so because they misjudged the precise landing point which would leave them an inch away from the very point of the aforementioned knight’s lance.)
(The other .02% fell in love, but that’s another story.)
Thus it was that when Susan finally kicked apart her tenth useless situational diagram, through which she was attempting to create some kind of scheme, when she had scuffed it into oblivion and picked up her bindlestiff to go, that the Dragon alit, touching the ground so delicately that there was almost no noise at all, until it flapped its seemingly-endless wings shut with a whipcrack which shook the trees around them.
The Dragon communicated with Susan via her mind. This was not because it could not speak human languages; rather, it couldn’t be bothered to open its mouth.
“So?” it asked. “Have you come here to try to kill me, or to flee from me?”
It was in this moment that Susan, despite her age, despite her inexperience, reached deep inside herself to the force within. She had activated it before, but not often, usually by accident or in moments of stress or anger. Never before had it flowed through her, not like this. She drew forth, from every well of inner flame, the very core of her soul: the power known to the ancients as “sarcasm”.
“Both, obviously. I mean, what small human child hasn’t had the ambition of running away terrified from an angry giant frog with wings while getting a bolt of hellflame through the back of the head? BOTH, I tell you. I won’t settle for less. I’m sure, in your basically-immortal life, you can’t possibly be bored with constantly cutting down people who count as ‘opponents’ only in the sense that they (very, very briefly) stand in front of you and yell nasty things for however long you need to take a deep breath. What’re you waitin’ for, idiot? Flame me.”
The Dragon blinked. This was no small thing, as rows of nictitating membranes shuttered and heaved in rapid succession.
“What are you, you tiny little blot?”
Susan tried to draw herself up to her full height, and realized, to her annoyance, that she was not only already standing up straight, she was currently on her tiptoes; if the Dragon hadn’t been looking straight down at her, she’d be talking to its ankle right now.
The bottom of its ankle.
“I am Susan, Child of Prophecy, the Chosen One, the One who shall defeat the Dark Lord.
The lizard looked at the girl.
“What is your birthday?” it asked.
The Dragon looked up, as if it could see past the Sun to the alignments of stars. It did a mental calculation.
“You’re not the Chosen One.”
Susan looked up at it defiantly. “If the Stars didn’t choose me, they better choose somebody, and fast.”
“We Dragons are largely indifferent to human affairs, and when we are not, we side with the Dark Lord.”
Susan shook her head. “I’ve been reading up on Dragons.”
The Dragon snorted. “The myths tell you nothing.”
“Disagreed. They tell me mostly stupid things. Dragons being killed. Dragons being tamed. That’s what the histories say. And then the biological and zoological studies say that’s ridiculous; you’d be more likely to be able to knock down a fortified city-state than the average Dragon. Obviously no one knight has gone around killing you with any success.
So either humans lie—”
“Which they do,” said both Susan and the Dragon, in unison. The Dragon blinked again, but said nothing.
“—or you’ve been playing with us.”
The Dragon tossed its tail. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
“You’re incredibly old, you rarely mate—”
“I’ll settle down when I want to, thank you!”
“—showing a clear preference for gold over inter-species intimacy—”
“How old are you?”
“And, in short, you meddle in human affairs because you’re bored.”
“So your point is?”
“Take me in. Teach me how to keep you amused. I’m certain that, in the process, I’ll learn enough to get farther in my quest to off the Dark Lord, and in the meantime, I’ll have a roof over my head and some kind of purpose.”
“And the moment you bore me, I get rid of you? Is that a risk you want to take?”
“You mean, as opposed to you killing me now?”
“What makes you think I have any desire to show you anything? You’re remarkably quick for one so small—for anyone of your species, really—but I have better things to do than spend my time instructing something with a brain smaller than most of my rubies.”
The small mammal looked up at the Promethean pollywog. “Like what?” she said.
It is impossible for a Human to read a Dragon’s features. So there’s no way the expression on its face was “flustered”. And yet. And yet.
The Dragon blasted a jet of flame straight over Susan’s head. It wasn’t the best moment in her life so far, but, to be perfectly honest, it was pretty far from the worst. So she stood her ground.
“So, do you want to fry me, or do you want to fly us back to your cave and teach me things until I can carry on a reasonable conversation?”
The lizard glowered.
“Here’s the deal,” said the thing of Myth, “You can stay, but at some point, I’m going to grow bored with you and eat you. That’s not a threat. It’s just how these things work. I have no intention of limiting my dietary options just because a monkey is chittering in a manner I find pleasing. So I suggest that you sneak away by, oh, let’s say, the Vernal Equinox.”
Susan nodded. “Now carry me, I’m tired,” she said.
The Dragon gave what was definitely a sigh. It might have been resignation. Then again, it might not. Delicately, it picked up the little pink thing and lifted into the air. “We’ll start with geography,” said the beast. “That sounds horrible,” replied the girl.
“We never said this would be fun for you,” replied the lizard, heading towards its cave.
My name is Jeff Mach (“Dark Lord” is optional) and I build communities, put on events, and make stories come into being. I also tweet a lot over @darklordjournal.