Friday, March 11, 2016

First Steps

First Steps is an Erien setting story.

Artwork by Samuel Pray created using Daz 3D, Photoshop and Filter Forge

"It's easy, I don't know why you're making such a fuss about the entire thing." Niama sighed and looked back over her shoulder, her long lashes brushing over her bright green scales for a moment before she opened her eyes once more. Dark golden eyes flashed with amusement as she flicked her tongue over her sharp front teeth. With a low chuckle she rolled out her shoulders, the muscles flexing beneath her shining scales. "All you have to do is..."

"I know what I have to do, it's just that - I don't think I can do it. Not right now at least." Brand growled, baring his own teeth. Fear. It wasn't something anyone wanted to admit to, least of all one of his lineage. Things were expected from him. Great things. Yeah, he'd heard the rumors, caught the tail end of conversations that died when he landed near a group of hatchlings or older dragons. They all had their own ideas of what he would do and it was made all the worse by the fact that he was the last of his clutch to find his gifts.

"You mastered flying easily enough, so what's the problem? This should be simple for you."

Flying? That was easy compared to this. What did Niama know about the situation? It wasn't as if she shared the same power, or lineage. He was of Orent's blood, one of only five hatchlings born to the great black dragon in the past one hundred years, and his mother - where was she? Working with a human of all things. Just as she had been for generations. Bound to the line of the Dragon Throne, a servant instead of a mother. She chose that life, didn't she? Or was she pushed into it? Not something he'd ever been able to ask her, not in the brief visits that he'd been able to enjoy with his mother. Now he faced this step without the support of a parent, for the Gods alone knew who his father was. Not one member of his clan was willing to share that information with him.

"You know most of us go through the exploration of our abilities without our parents," Niama rose, flicking out her wings before she lowered her head, stretching her back with a slow, elegant grace. "Dragon kind doesn't stifle their children. We grow, we explore, and we find our own way in life. It's time you learned to do the same thing. Stop focusing on the fact that Orent is your mother, it's holding you back."

"Yeah, well most of you do stupid things anyway!" He snapped - and instantly regretted the words. I'm not focusing on my mother. How could I - I barely even know her. Would he even recognize Orent if the great black dragon landed in front of him? She was, in all reality, a stranger to him at this point.

The green dragon turned, slowly, and met his gaze, arching an eyebrow. "If we weren't friends I'd fry you here and now for that."

Brand grumbled and ducked his head. "Yeah, okay, I'm sorry. What you do - it's not stupid. Not like I can spit fire or ice the way you do. It's just that... there's no one else here I can ask. We're not even certain I can do it, it's just assumed I can because I'm not showing signs of anything else." Power, they all had some sort of power they could call upon, fire, lightning, ice, acid, spell casting, there were even rumors of those dragons who - many generations back - had the ability to jump through time. Not that such a thing had happened since the dawn of their kind. But his mother, the Lady Orent, bound to the Dragon Throne, was something more. She was a magic user of the highest level, able to find and form soul stones, use elemental magic and open a gate that allowed swift travel between one area and another. If the tales were to be believed Orent could open a gate and travel from one side of Erien to the other in the matter of moments, a rare magic that also appeared in a handful of human lines.

"Foolish male."

"Stubborn female!"

"Rock face!"

"Flame breath!" Brand turned, snarling at Niama, only to flash a wicked grin a heartbeat later. "Should push you off the ledge and dunk you in the hissing swamps. See what you look like covered in rag weed and slop!"

"You and what clutch?" Niama laughed, baring her teeth in a challenge even as she lowered her head, lifting her tail as her body tensed, ready to pounce. She stopped, blinking for a moment before she stood up and met his gaze. "You're trying to avoid the testing."

"What? Me? No, nothing like that, just having a little fun is all." Smoke and Stars, why did she have to stop and think? He wasn't ready for this, but the elders would be waiting for him. If he'd been caught up in a playful moment with Niama at least he could have shared the blame with someone else when he didn't show up.

"Uh huh, you forget, I know you." Niama rolled her eyes and looked, pointedly down at the bowl like gathering area among the base of the spires that the dragons called home. Or at least this group of dragons claimed as their own. There were other dragon settlements across the face of Erien, though neither Brand nor Niama had visited them. "Come on, I'll go down with you."

Brand sighed, stretched out and looked around. Tall multi-colored rock spires reached up toward the sky. Ledges, caves, rock perches and look out points all showed signs of dragon claws. High above the spires a dozen young dragons flew and dived, playing cloud hopper games to the mixture of delight from younger dragons and complaints from older ones. This place, the Spires, was home and because of that it was the center of his world. But I don't want it to be like this. I don't want to stay here for the rest of my life. "If I complete the testing, I'll be an adult."

"Yes, you know that how it works." Niama flicked out her wings and shifted to the edge of the ledge. "And then you'll be - for the most part - free of their restrictions. You can come and go as you wish as long as you respect the laws of our people."

Brand nodded once. Leave. He needed to leave the Spires. As long as he lived here he'd be the son of Lady Orent. The only one of the clutch that had a physical resemblance to his mother and the one they expected great things of. "They think I'm going to be like her."


"What if I'm not?" He moved to the edge, letting his claws curl around the rock. "What if I don't become a bonded, or I don't do anything of note?"

Niama tipped her head to the left, flicking her right ear at him. "If you don't then it doesn't matter. We're dragons, we're of note to begin with. All of the other races look at us and wish they were like us." She shrugged before she turned to look down at the clearing where the elders waited. "We are ourselves, and don't have to be anything else."

Easy for you to say. Your parents are... normal.

"Come on, Brand. Best to get this over and done with." Niama flashed a grin and launched herself into the air, spreading her wings out to catch the updraft. The subtle touch of magic vibrated through the air, the very magic that made it possible for dragons to be able to fly. "Come with me, Brand. Get this done and then we can play!"

Play, as if I'll ever get the chance to play again after the testing. The council, the elders, would have things they would expect him to do. They'd send him out on work, maybe a scouting mission, something that would keep him out of trouble. At least in their eyes. "Fine, let's go down and see them."

Niama circled, waiting for him, catching and riding the thermals, her gaze never leaving him.

With a shrug he closed his eyes, leaned forward and let himself fall. His wings snapped out, catching the air as the magic kicked in giving him the chance to settle himself before he turned, soaring up for a moment. This was freedom, this was it was to be a dragon except - except there was something more. The magic, the rest of the power that rippled within his body, still ached with the need to escape, to be discovered and until he took this test, until he found out what he was capable of doing, he'd be incomplete.

Is that what's wrong?

He scowled, focusing for a moment on the waiting dragons beneath them. "I'm not incomplete I'm just...unsettled."

"Did you say something?" Niama glided in a little closer.

"No, I'm fine." Yeah, just dandy. Going to get this test over and done with, find I can't do anything and then be the laughing stock of the entire colony. They'd never let him live it down. Here he was, the son of the Lady Orent and a failure. Sure, he was a dragon and he could fly, but real magic? Not something he was gifted with. He knew that, knew within his heart that he'd go through the testing and fail in an all too dramatic way. Worse, there would be witnesses who couldn't be denied. The Elders. Their word - no, he had to stop thinking like this.

He growled, teeth clenched as he angled his body and dropped down, spiraling at the last minute before he stretched out his wings, using the sudden catch of air in his wings draw him to a sudden stop. Only then did he feel the ground beneath his feet and closed his eyes before he folded his wings in against his body, turned, rolled out his shoulders and faced the waiting trio of Elders.

"We have been waiting for you." A deep gray dragon with ice blue fur tumbling down from his neck in a mane, met his gaze.

"I'm sorry about that, old one." Brand lowered his head slightly. "I let my fears get the better of me."

"Fears? What fears could you possibly have, young one?" The second dragon, a deep blue with silver horns that curled on either side of her head, inquired.

"That I would fail completely, and find that I have no inner magic. Nothing I can call upon save the ability to fly." The words slipped out before he found the strength to lock them deep within.

"And you think that no other dragon has faced such a fear, Brand son of Orent?" The final Elder spoke, his voice deep, rolling with the power of the earth, matching the bronze and iron color of his scales.

"Well..." Brand swallowed hard, fighting a rising heat that flushed beneath his cheek scales.

"We all face that fear at your age, young one. We all came down for our testing wondering if we would be the first to fail." The Gray dragon added, his voice soft as a breeze. "We faced this and we conquered it. You will do the same thing. So, I ask you, on behalf of this council - are you ready for your testing, Brand son of Orent."

No. I'm not. I can't do this. Not right now.

"If you're not ready, speak now and we can wait another moon, or three, however long it takes for you to reach a point where you're ready to face the testing." The bronze dragon explained, his voice firm, eyes cold metal as he watched Brand.

"I'm ready." What - why did I say that? I'm not ready. It was too late to take that back now. The words had been said, the acceptance of the testing had been announced. "Waiting won't change anything. Either I do this now or I continue to run away from it." Had that been what he'd been doing? Running from it?

"A wise choice, young Brand." The blue dragon nodded once before the three Elders spaced out until they surrounded Brand. "Then the testing will begin and you will take your final steps into adulthood as our people count such things."

Adult. He'd be an adult. Able to choose his own place to live, explore beyond the safe skies above the Spires, and - and then what? Where would he go? What would he really do with his life? Too late to think about things like that. I've made my choice. Time to face the testing. He couldn't even remember the names of the three Elders that stood in the circle around him. His mind reeled, turmoil claiming it as he tried to focus on his breathing and on the magic that he would summon into life for the first time.

"Close your eyes," the bronze dragon instructed.

Brand let out a slow breath and closed his eyes. His heart raced and panic clawed at the inside of his chest. He wasn't ready for this. No matter what he'd agreed to he couldn't do it - he had to back out before…

"Focus on your breathing, clear your mind of everything else but the breath moving in and out of your body." The elder bronze dragon continued, his voice pitched low. "You are here, you are ready, and you've agreed to take the final test. Your magic is a part of you, as natural as the breath in your lungs."

Is it? Or am I fooling myself here?

"Let the walls down, the walls of doubt and fear. Let them go now with the next exhale. They are no longer a part of you, they are free, cast out into the air to carry away on your breath."

He exhaled slowly, trying to follow through with the instructions. It couldn't be that easy. No matter what the elder said, nothing could be as simple as a breath leaving his body. He inhaled once more and let out a new breath, picturing the tension leaving his body, carrying his anguish with it. Tension eased from his body and - for a moment - something crumbled within. Walls? He tried again, another deep breath that eased from between his lips and the wall disintegrated deep within him.

"Now, reach inside, reach deep, down into that core of magic and lift it up."

He no longer focused on who was speaking, only on the words. Words that opened something within him. He reached, following the instructions, for the power that waited for him. Slowly it answered his call, coming to his mental claws until he was able to bring it closer, able to see it clearly for the first time. It rippled within his grasp, bright silver, flickering and alive. Power that he couldn't deny, but didn't know what to do with. At least not yet.

"That's it, you've got it. Now, bring it out and into your fore claws."

Brand struggled to keep his eyes closed even as he pictured the ball of energy moving from his mental hands into his physical grasp. Something crackled across the palms of his fore claws and he gasped, opening his eyes before he had the presence of mind to stop himself.

"There's - there's nothing there," Brand mumbled. It didn't make sense. He could feel the energy moving across his claws and spreading out along his arms. "But I can feel it."

"It's there. It exists. You have to let it go, let it show you what it can do." The bronze Elder spoke, his voice ever calm and strong. "You're safe here, the wards are set. Nothing you do here will harm anyone else. All you have to do is let it go."

He swallowed. Hard. Let it go, such an easy thing to say but to do it - that was something completely different. What other choice do I have? I can't just leave it rippling over my body like this... can I? It continued to spread, thinning out, moving over his body until it covered his head, leaving him looking through a semi-transparent haze. It spread further down, coating every inch of his body, from the tip of his snout down to the very point of his tail.

"You've done it."

"What?" Done what? Nothing's happened. "I don't understand."

"We can hear your voice, Brand - but we can't see you. Even your voice is muffled, though we know it's you and that you're there."

His throat tightened and he turned, slowly, taking care not to disturb the small rocks beneath his feet. Could they really not see him?

"Invisibility is rare, very rare... and in time you will be able to muffle even the loudest of noises that you might otherwise make."

Invisible? He looked up, tensing as he did so. The urge to leap, to soar through the air and find out if anyone could see him, itched its way down the length of his spine. The power, it tingled across his scales, set a film over his eyes and muffled his steps - the power was undeniable. "I've done it."

"Now you have to draw it back in, gather it back up and store it within."

Why? I don't want to do that. I like the way it feels.

"You must control the magic. Not let it control you, Brand."

No more 'young Brand, son of Orent'. Just Brand. Named and accepted as an adult, but only if he could complete this final part of the test. With a shudder he closed his eyes, drawing in the magic a fraction at a time. Slowly at first and then with gathering speed, it obeyed him, returning to his grasp before the remaining energy returned to the hidden place within. Less than before, yet it wouldn't be long before it returned to its full strength. Only then did he open his eyes and meet the combined gaze of the three Elders.

"Well done, Brand. Very well done indeed." The Bronze took a step forward, extending his left fore claw in a greeting that offered peace and respect between equals. "You've completed your first steps as an equal, an adult, into the world of your people."

Brand looked down at the fore claw and took it, the movement clumsy this time. He knew that, but the smile that claimed his features was undeniable.

"I knew you could do it, Rock Face!" Niama called out from somewhere above the small gathering. Brand looked up, trying to form the words, but his age mate was already gone, darting through the spires and heading up into the clouds where he knew she'd dance and play with the others, but that wasn't for him. Not this time at least. Not when he had so much to learn.

Yes, I did it, completed the first steps - but not the last...not by a long shot.

Erien is used as the setting for Battle Skies, a table top 3D combat game. Novels in this setting are currently being reedited and formatted for re-release in May. Current Battle Skies releases can be found here.

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