Friday, March 28, 2014

Day Six-Sixty-Five: Make Contest Go Now

I should believe more in coincidence. Coincidence practically rules my life.

Though we didn't start off the day with signs of Libby to go by, we did discover ample evidence of the wild man's presence. Evan's little garden was absolutely ransacked of every piece of fruit or vegetable, and dozens of confused human footprints made the culprit rather obvious. Evan is still fuming over that, and he's asked for our help in getting rid of the wild man. 

If he gets us to Libby... maybe.

Despite seeing his food supply pilfered, Evan's spirits could not be at all destroyed today. He was far too excited for the beginning of the Contest, a great competition between dragons to determine who will be the alpha male of the local aerie. (Omega females have a much more private competition to determine their leaders. The males are grandstanders. Sounds about right.) He knew it would begin at 3 pm, on the dot - 

- and so it did, at least according to Evan's watch. That's when I realized I should've expected what I saw.

We arrived at the Contest grounds almost an hour early. They consist of a vast canyon of furrowed clouds, carved into the peak of Evan's cumulus abode. We took the long route and settled at the top of the furrow, watching as dragons trickled into the area far below. Most seemed to notice us immediately; most didn't seem to give a damn.

"We're far away," my son commented. He likes to make obvious observations no one else will. I love him for it. "Couldn't we go closer?"

"Certainly we could," Evan replied. "If you wish to be crushed. Many of the activities that comprise the Contest are skill- and intelligence-based, but just as many are physical. I don't wish to be trampled to death by that tubby quartzian tornface down there while he's dancing!"

Evan laughed at his own joke. Fynn's eyes went wide as he considered the prospect of a draconic dance contest. I tried not to act surprised, because something so silly as that sounds pretty normal under these circumstances.

"Besides," Evan continued, "Contests are often raided by rogue dragons. They're feral, you know, and none too bright - yet there seems to be a biological imperative for the brutes to prove their worth in martial competition. I'd rather not risk getting caught in the crossfire."

Nodding over the sagacity of the comment, we mumbled and waited. Dragons continued to appear below, flapping in from all directions in a variety of sizes and shapes. Some appeared as stealthy animals - foxes, birds, insects and the like - and were barely visible before they transformed. Some appeared in joking forms, with the heads of hippos and the bodies of enormous pterodactyls, usually to the appreciative grunts of their fellows. Yet others simply entered as plain 'ol dragons, which is how they all wound up looking once the aerie had gathered in its entirety.

I must confess myself surprised. Despite the run-in with the greyish rogue dragon last week, I kinda figured all dragons would look alike - ie, they would look like Barrel. I was wrong. In their natural forms, dragons run the gamut from tubby and emerald green to stocky and bright orange to outrageously thin and freckled-tan. They are much more individualistic than other races I've encountered, and I wonder how much of that stems from their shape-changing abilities. (I also wonder how, or why, Evan classifes them with names like 'greenback'. Shrug?)

"Ahhh, ahh, there he is!" Evan pointed, finger quivering in excitement. "There! The big one! That's the purplehorn! See him? Ridges! You can tell by his distinct, inverted patella! GO RIDGES!"

"The hell's a patella?" Logan muttered to his father, seated beside me.

"Don't swear," Jeffrey muttered back. "But damned if I know."

"It's this." Grylock pointed at the abrupt curve in his ear. "This kink. That's a patella."

"But they don't even have ears like yours," Jeffrey retorted. "You're just making that up."

"Ye lookin' for a fight, kingly?" Grylock threw up his fists. "I'll make ye kiss your patella so hard ye'll wish ye never crawled outta your mother's womb."

"SHHHHH!" Evan hissed, unexpectedly loud. He continued to jab a finger towards the crowd of dragons, now at least one hundred beasts strong. "They're starting, you fools! Don't wreck this for me!"

We fell silent. Evan is passionate about his dragons.

Through some mutual decision that none of us could detect - Evan suspects that dragons speak non-verbally - the dragons began to part. Dozens of females and smaller, lankier males gathered into a massive, milling crowd, forming up around a smaller contingent of large, proud males. Near the center of them stood the tall Ridges, larger than the rest by a significant degree, his plaited mane glimmering in the sun -

- and next to him, not quite as tall but still quite regal, rested a very familiar figure. One with a rotund belly covered in scars, and a shaggy mass of hair that had grown even longer since we'd parted ways over a year ago.

"Is that my dragon right there?" Jeffrey poked at my shoulder. "Hey, Dragomir, isn't that Apocalyptor?"

I rolled my eyes. "His name's Barrel, stupid. But, uh, yeah, I think that's him."

"SHHHHHHH!" Evan's insistent hushing burned my ears. "This part's important and if you ruin this for me I'll push you off this cliff so help me gods!"

I held up my hands in supplication. Huffing, Evan turned back to his dragons. All of us exchanged glances, and Antonio pantomimed pushing Evan off of our tall perch instead. I shook my head, surpressing a laugh... though I do wonder how much Antonio was actually joking.

Once the two crowds of dragons had settled, the members of the Contest - Barrel and Ridges included - rose up and stretched their necks, craning their heads towards the sun. The area became very silent and still, and for at least a minute I wondered if they'd all gone to sleep. But then the low humming of their voices reached us, a sonorous, almost mournful tone, and soon the entire aerie was singing, the spectators providing background rumbling to the chorus of the contestants.

I'm not sure I can accurately describe dragons singing. There were no words to the spectacle, only sound: a rhythmic, booming intonation that shook the skies and the clouds. As the song hit its crescendo I felt as though I would be bounced off my seat at any second, and I clutched nervously to the pliable ground, fearing that the dragons might destroy their clouded kingdom with their power.

It was, in summary, awful. Dragons have terrible voices. Or at least they do to humans who aren't Evan.

Eventually the song subsided, and as it did the twenty-odd competitors in the Contest exchanged stubby handshakes. Barrel and Ridges seemed particularly cold in this formality, and the jagged smile on Ridges' face chilled me. Barrel's expression was no less stern, though he didn't return the smile.

I gently poked Evan's shoulder. "Can I say something?"

"Huh?" Evan peered at me, his eyes glazed. The remnants of stupid rapture lingered behind his deep beard. "Oh, uh, sure. Be quick, please."

"Those two. The... greenback. And Ridges. They look kinda pissed at one another. How come?"

"Rivalry, of course. What else?" Evan shrugged. "They both wish to lead the aerie and establish a lasting dynasty. Each has a mate, and I believe both mates are pregnant. It's within their interests to seize power, for the good of their offspring."

"Oh, yeah. Because of the whole 'higher position in society, better raised' thing, right?"

"Err... kind of." Evan scratched at his beard. "I think it may be more serious than that this year, though. Ridges is a particularly domineering male, and he likes to flaunt his power. He may try to force his rivals out of the aerie if he becomes the alpha. It's his right, if he wins the Contest."

"Huh." I looked at Barrel. He was striding off of the field of battle, hard expression softening as he approached a smaller female. His wife? Mate? Whatever? "What happens to dragons who're kicked out?"

"They have to find a new cloud to live on." Evan sighed. "And if they don't, they're forced to live down with the rest of us. Slavery, persecution, and death await them down there. Dragons may be strong, but they're in high demand amongst us lower races. Forcing dragons to be pets is not uncommon."

Jeffrey shifted uncomfortably behind me. Sigh.

The Contest has, in small part, begun. The dragons engaged in some light physical exercises today, kind of an elimination round, and a few of the scrawnier competitors got the boot. Barrel's still in the running, though Ridges is easily the most impressive competitor of the lot. He can benchpress a tonne of clouds like no one I've ever seen. Evan tells me the Contest will become a great deal fiercer in the days to come.

I'm kind of torn, I have to admit.

Because... if he win... Barrel is the leader of an aerie. And that's good! I dunno how the hell he got here in the first place, but that's good. And I'm glad for him.

But... on the other side... if he loses, and gets kicked out... Barrel could come with us again. And that... that'd be pretty awesome.


Such conflict.

I really need to get back to this looking-for-my-wife thing. Y'know? That should be a priority.


Dragomir the Wanderer

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