by Stars Above
A fantasy novel based around the characters Orion and Calliope
|Hello. My name is Orion Ursa, and this is my recounting of the Crazed King Incident for the Library of The Blessed Few.
I walked down a road, tossing an apple from hand to hand. I took a quick bite, savoring the sweet, tart crispness of the green fruit. I absolutely love fall: the changing colors of the leaves, everything coming into season, and the temperature of the air -- just cool enough to warrant a cloak, if desired, but not cold enough to require a cloak should one not wish to wear it. And, of course, Glaesum is the color of fall.
I smiled at that and reached my left hand up to my neck, where my small dragon lay curled as if he were a necklace or a scarf, letting off his perpetual heat. I shifted my cloak a little to make sure that Glaesum was at least mostly hidden by its dark green folds.
Few people honestly appreciate the beauty of monsters. Monsters can be destructive at times -- dragons have been known to ravage towns and steal sheep -- but they could also build and create. Back home, many of the Little Folk worked with artisans to create all sorts of things that neither could do alone. Elves would help the cobblers, and brownies often worked with bakers and chefs.
My home, Bolide, is the only nation in the world in which such a relationship between people and monsters would be possible. The Bolidians are, as a general rule, more accepting of the creatures, and the two races live alongside the other. As a matter of fact, we hosted the world’s only Dragon Sanctuary, with a total of two hundred and thirty-one dragons. There used to be one more than that, but when I left to explore the world, Glaesum came with me.
I’m glad to have him, honestly. Even though he's small, his scent is enough to dissuade any wolves, bears, and from attacking a lone wanderer. He is also pretty great for starting a fire, which is helpful during the winter. Nobody likes to freeze to death, after all... or at least, I don't. You're welcome to try it if you like.
I hiked up a hill and saw a small town nearby, a mere speck on the long, open plains. It was surrounded by fields of grains, many of which had begun to be harvested and cut for sale. I couldn’t make out many features of the town, but even from here it was obvious it would have at least one tavern or market. I could sell some of the stuff I’d picked up, and could hopefully buy a place to stay and a warm meal for the night.
Before I could do that, I would have to hide Glaesum. He was only twelve -- practically a baby -- so I couldn’t leave him there alone. I stopped and put down my pack, opening the flap on the top and removing everything.
Glaesum let out a small, warm, meat-scented huff on my face, clearly unhappy about this arrangement. I gagged and removed him from my neck, then placed under the bundle of clothes and trinkets that I picked up while wandering. He would be safe in there, and I could be sure that no one would be attacking him any time soon. After all, most people view dragons as being dangerous threats, even when they're hardly grown at all.
I impulsively redid the silver clasps on my cloak before pulling on my now significantly heavier pack and quarterstaff.
I walked toward the town, through the old stone and dirt path that cut through the rolling fields of amber grains. Reaching a hand out, I watched my fingers run through the wheat, causing it to ripple. I smiled.
As I walked, I looked up to the sky, humming a tune to myself. It was an old song about life, death, and love. The melody was haunting, in a pleasant sort of way.
It wasn't long until I met another person, a farmer. He was an old man, with a worn leather face and calloused hands. He was cutting grain and when he saw me he stood up and spoke. "Hello." His voice was rough and coarse, filled with the grit of a working man.
I smiled pleasantly at him and responded, “Hello sir. Lovely weather, nice and crisp.”
I took another bite of my apple as he responded.
“I suppose so, son. You headed to town for the night?”
"Yes, sir," I said, nodding my head.
“Well, then I'll offer ya some free advice, if yer willing to take it," he said with an odd expression on his face.
I nodded once more.
“Keep yer head down, smile a lot, and don’t talk a whole lot.”
I raised my eyebrow at that.
“Well, that’s a touch dark.”
He smiled grimly. “Some people say monsters are the worst things. In my experience, mankind's far worse. Man is far crueler and harsher than a dire wolf could ever be.”
I nodded again, this time a bit solemn. This was a sentiment well known in my home, but not one often expressed in the Five Kingdoms.
“I take it that you have some nasty people in town then?”
He sighed and rested on the tool in his hands. “Ya could say it that way, for sure. Just keep in mind what I told ya and ya’ll get out alright.”
I ran a hand through my hair and watched him. There was something obviously wrong about this whole thing, and I wasn't sure what. But damn it, I was hungry, thirsty, and tired, and I wasn't going to give in to fear.
The old farmer smiled grimly and went back to reaping the wheat in the fields, and so I turned my back to him and walked away. I could see the town, and with it all the smells of civilization.
There was the faint smell of bread in the air, from a baker. The smell of horses also, and smoke.
I strolled into the town.
It’d been a while since I was in a true town. What, a month of crisscrossing the Five Kingdoms since I’d visited a true civilization? I considered that maybe I should go home soon; it would be nice to see my family again.
I reflexively reached to touch Glaesum, who wasn’t there, and sighed as I walked down the street. At the end of main road was a house far larger and fancier than any of the other ones in the town. Likely it belonged to the leader of the town, though I had no clue who that would be.
I shook my head and chuckled quietly, turning down the left street. That was where the most clamor and voices were, so I assumed that if they had a large open air market, it would be located around there.
I was right. After about a minute of walking in the brisk autumn air, I came across a group of traders passing through. They seemed to be from Fractus, as they had darker skin and hair, as well as a deep, oceanic accent.
I’d never actually been to Fractus, as it was the farthest from my home, and even the most distant of the Five Kingdoms. I had, however, met several of its people in my year or two of wandering, and they had always been fair and kind.
I walked up to one of the traders, who was shouting about the prices of some jewelry. He was tall, towering an easy eight inches above me. His skin was a dark olive, like all people from Fractus. He smiled perspicaciously at me and I gave him an equal smile back.
“Well, young lady, how may I help you? Perhaps a pretty golden necklace?”
I gave him a flat and belligerent stare. “I am not a young lady!” I said hotly; “and if that was an attempt to insult me, I’ve had far worse.”
“My apologies sir," he chuckled, waving his hand dismissively. "I was mistaken, I meant no insult or harm. What can I do for you? Looking for a pretty golden necklace for your lovely lady, then?"
I sighed again. I couldn’t believe this guy. I'd just met him and he was already on my nerves. “I’m here to sell. Do you buy trinkets?”
He hesitated, studying my face, and then slowly nodded. “Sometimes, yes.”
I grinned. Finally, this trader was doing something useful! I gently placed my pack on the ground and he looked at my quarterstaff. “Forty crowns for that.”
My eyebrows shot up. With forty crowns, I could stay at an inn for a month or longer quite easily, and not have to worry about saving every penny. But sadly, I wasn’t about to let my staff go.
“Not for sale.” I tightened my grip on the weapon.
"It's not for sale.”
“Fifty-two," he wheedled.
I glared at him again. “I told you, it isn’t for sale. Even if you were to offer me five hundred crowns, I wouldn’t hand it over.”
I opened the top of my pack and the clothing stirred some. I let out an urgent hiss and it abruptly stopped. I glanced around nervously, but nobody seemed to have seen.
Sitting atop the clothes and baby dragon were the trinkets I'd planned to sell. One was a small golden bauble, useless to most people as anything more than a paperweight or an oddity. Glaesum had picked it up on one of the times he got free, and I never was sure exactly what to do with it.
The next thing I placed on the table was a scale about the size of a daisy petal. It was a rich amber colour, with a multifarious shimmer that reflected light into differing hues. It was more resplendent than any jewel could ever hope to be, and nearly as hard as ruby or sapphire, and with even fewer stress lines.
The trader’s eyes widened slightly and he picked it up. “What's this? I’ve never seen anything like it before...”
“That, sir, is a dragon scale." I couldn't quite repress my smirk. "They’re rare, I know. Worth a lot, for sure…”
He looked at me doubtfully. "A dragon scale? Yeah, we'll see about that." He grabbed something from beneath his booth -- a small hammer, it seemed, and a few other tools. He took the hammer and rapped it on the dragon scale with considerable force. Rather than cracking or shattering, the scale let out a single resonating note, which hung in the air for a moment.
A few people turned to look at us, curious and awestruck, before eventually returning to their shopping and bartering.
“Well... I’ll be damned. That’s either a genuine dragon scale or the best fake I’ve ever seen in my life. Seventeen crowns.”
I looked at him incredulously. “Twenty.”
He chuckled and shook his head. “No, no, no. You see, if I were to give you twenty, I could never turn a profit from it. Seventeen, take it or leave it.”
We haggled like that for a while, and I eventually walked out with twenty-five and a half crowns, but with no bauble or scale.
I smiled. It was an excellent deal, all things considered.
I pulled on my pack and began to stroll through the town. As I walked around, looking for a tavern that didn’t look too seedy nor too expensive, I noticed people quickly moving out of the road and bowing their heads. I turned and saw a man walking down the street. He was clothed in long white robes, and held his head high and haughty. I could only assume he was the leader of the town, or perhaps the leader's son.
One lady standing alongside me, clad in brown peasant’s garb, grabbed my arm and yanked me aide. Glaesum wiggled in his pack, none too happy about this new development.
“Put your head down,” she hissed. “You don’t want to make him mad!”
I did as she instructed and bowed my head. The white robed figure strode past with his head held high, towering over everyone with ease. Once he'd passed, the people around me let out a collective sigh of relief.
I turned to face the woman that had pulled me aside, determined to learn more.
“Who was he? A town leader?”
“Well, a leader of sorts. He is our town tyrant, self-appointed.”
“Why don’t you do anything then? He’s only one person, he isn’t invincible.”
“Wow, we haven’t thought of that before!" She rolled her eyes. "All our problems are now magically solved.”
I sighed. “But really, why don’t you?”
She let out a sigh of her own and her shoulders slumped. “He has a blessing. And not just any blessing, but a Major Blessing, the Blessing of Gilgamesh. He really is like a god, insanely strong. I once saw him crumble stone with his bare hands…”
My eyes widened. “The Blessing of Gilgamesh? I’ve never met anybody with that blessing, and I’ve wandered all across the world!”
“Yeah. There was a rebellion a year or two ago, and he shoved his hand into his stomach and pulled out his intestines. Blood coated the square for some time, since he wouldn't allow anyone to clean it up, and he wore his entrails like a necklace for a month. Since then he insisted we call him Gutripper." She grimaced.
There’s no way I’m staying here for long. I’ll spend the night, then I am out of here. I’m no hero, I'm not about to go off and fight this guy, I thought.
“We all dream of him being beaten, but we dream in the dark. Nobody could beat him one on one, and lord knows how many have already tried."
“He’ll die eventually. Everyone does, even dragons.” Glaesum wiggled in his pack again, and I felt his nose poke me through the leather bag. “Well, do you know a tavern where I could get some food, drink, and rest?" I asked, changing the subject rather abruptly.
She gave a noncommittal shrug.
“Lots of travelers stay at The Copper Kitten. It’s somewhat cheap.”
I smiled and shook her hand.
“Thank you ma'am, thank you very much, for everything. It’s not much, but take this.”
I removed two and a half crowns from my pocket and pressed it into her hand. She stared at them for a while, and when she looked up at me her gray eyes were glistening. She stepped forward and threw her arms around me, hugging me tightly, and I patted her back rather awkwardly.
“Thank you… thank you so much. You have no idea, thank you.”
She gave me a bright smile and tucked the coins into her clothes, and when she turned and walked away she had a new livelihood about her. I smiled as she left. Soon I began to weave through the town, looking for The Copper Kitten. After a few minutes of walking, I found it and glanced it up and down.
It was a tall building, taller than almost any around. It was four stories high, seemingly made of several different woods. The base seemed to have once been oak, but it had been repaired many times over. Shaky wooden poles kept the place together. The third and fourth layers swayed with each gust of wind, and the windows were grimy. I swore I saw a face with glowing red eyes in one of them, but it was gone as soon as I looked at it.
Oh, maybe it’s a demon! I hope it’s as nice as Old Granny Smith.
I smiled fondly at that thought. Granny Smith was one of the kindest people I had ever met, and when I was younger I would always sneak out of the Dragon Sanctuary at night to go to her house.
The door opened and I, lost in thought, nearly jumped out of my skin. A burly man with a large handlebar mustache walked by, and he tipped his hat to me as he passed. I nodded to him and entered the building.
The inside was nearly as crazy and chaotic as the outside, only in a calmer manner. The first floor was mostly a bar, and several waitresses walked around with mugs of ale, flirting for tips with customers. Smoke was heavy in the room, and -- I'm completely serious -- in the center of the bar was a large, metal statue of a kitten.
People were playing various card games, and three men of very different ages worked at the bar, making food and pouring drinks. One was old and gray, one middle aged, and one hardly looked older than I was.
It wasn’t the seediest place I had stayed the night, but it was far, far away from being an image of utopia.
I made my way to the bar and took a seat. The middle aged man walked over and squinted at me, trying to see me in the dim light and smoke. “Well, what can I help you with?”
I reached for my money.
"I'd like to rent a room for the night, and have something to eat too. Anything that's filling will do."
He shrugged. “Any drinks? We have all sorts, including a new brew, a cold apple ale.”
I gave a nod, and he returned the gesture, eyeing me curiously.
“Hold up, you've got to pay first. That’ll be two crowns.”
I pulled out a double crown and slid it over to him, and he tucked it behind the bar before removing a bowl, key, and mug. He slapped the key on the table, tore a hunk of bread off and filled the bowl with a soup of some kind, then placed the hunk of bread on the soup. He put that in front of me and filled the mug with frothy apple ale from a barrel, then placed that on the table, some of it sopping over the edge. Without another word, he turned and left to attend to other bar patrons.
I dipped the bread in my soup and tasted it. It wasn’t half bad, all things considered. It had a lot of pepper in it, and it also tasted strongly of beer, but I supposed that I'd had worse. It definitely needed some salt.
I took a sip of the ale and wiped my lip. Ale has never been one of my favorite things, but this brew was not half bad. The Copper Kitten was evidently much more popular for its alcohol than food. It had a husky malt flavor, a definite ale, but it also had the subtle sweet crispness of a fresh red apple running throughout.
As I sipped on the ale the older gentleman walked over, washing a mug out with a dirty gray rag.
“Hello young man. How are you doing on this fine night?”
I raised my eyebrow.
“That seems to be a cheery greeting, especially for this town.”
The old man grinned and winked conspiratorially at me. “Well, when you reach my age you only have a few options. Be old, gray, sedentary, sad, and don’t make the most of your remaining years, or you can make the most of those years. Why should I worry about Mr. John Brown?”
I tilted my head curiously at him. "Who's John Brown?" I wasn't sure whether the man was overly optimistic, or simply a bit insane.
He smirked and placed the mug down, then began to polish another one.
“He calls himself Gutripper or some ridiculous nonsense nowadays, but I remember that he was once a normal man named John Brown, a sweet kid." He shot a glance in my direction, his eyes twinkling in amusement. "Ever heard of such a blasted normal name? But he got a touch crazy in his teen years. Shame too, he could have done so much good. He squandered his powers.”
“Interesting… How do you think a blessing should be used then?”
“If you aren’t using your blessing to help other people, why have a blessing at all? Seems rather pointless to me. Anyhow, if it weren't meant to be used for good, why not call it a curse?”
I nodded thoughtfully and pushed my hair out of my eyes.
“Do you have a blessing, then?”
He grinned broadly.
“You know, I’ve been asked that a few times, haven’t I?”
“You didn’t answer.”
“No, I didn’t.”
I took a spoonful of soup and studied him for a while. He was taller than me, maybe five foot eleven or so. His hair was gray, but held the occasional streak of black in it, and his face was surprisingly untouched by the sands of time with the exception of his gray scruff. His hands were knotted with muscle, kind of like that of a coal miner from Bolide or a logger from Acies, and his arms had the slight droop of someone who had once been very strong. This looked like the body of a man who had been a powerful warrior during his youth.
“Were you a soldier?”
He rubbed his gray scruff.
“Well, congratulations sir. What’s your name?”
“Orion Ursa," I said wryly. "Terrible, isn't it? And what about yours?”
He chuckled. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you, but just call me Jones. And son, you’re right. I am a soldier, and I was one for…” He trailed off for a brief moment, looking in my direction but not truly seeing. “Well. I was a soldier for some considerable time. I don’t worry about John. He can try to rip out my guts all he wants -- and he may well succeed -- but I’m not worried. Hope you never go to war Orion, because the hellscape that is a battlefield doesn’t waver.”
I nodded slowly.
“Jones, could you defeat John?”
“If he came in my tavern, got drunk, and started a fight?" He gave a slight shrug. "Probably. But if I went outside and fought him flat on an even battlefield? No, not against someone like him.”
I watched Jones, though that wasn’t his name, move. He held himself with power and confidence, and it reminded me of old Granny Smith back at home. I locked eyes with him and he looked right back at me. We stared at each other for some time, the world seeming to melt away around us until it was just him and I, standing in a vast emptiness and I saw him for what he really was.
In his soul burned a powerful fire, more powerful than a mortal’s soul could be. It was a soul that very nearly rivaled that of the master of the Dragon Sanctuary, Coeles.
Though Jones' power rivaled that of an average dragon’s, it was a different sort of fire that I sensed. I had only ever met a few people with souls like this.
I broke the gaze with some difficulty and spoke in a hushed tone. “You’re a demon. Just like Granny Smith.”
He smiled softly. “You’re the first to recognize what I am in a long time, son, and the first ever to not run in terror. And I know what you are. Your soul is more like a dragon’s than any mortal man that has ever walked through these doors.”
I shrugged. “Well, I was left on the doorstep of the Dragon Sanctuary as a kid, and that’s where I grew up.”
“So that’s why you have a sleeping dragon in your pack? I could smell its scent coming off of you since you entered the tavern.”
"You’re okay with him, right?” I asked cautiously.
He gave me a bemused look.
“What kind of hypocrite would I be if I wasn’t okay with it?”
I smiled at that, lifting my bowl and drinking the remaining liquid. Jones then took the dish and placed it in a tub of warm, soapy water.
“So, what is your real name?”
“My name is Praevalidus Jones. I fought for Bolide in the war one thousand years ago, when it was first being born as a nation. Have they torn down my statue in the capital yet?”
“I don’t believe so, but I haven’t checked," I said, feeling a grin spread across my face.
He beamed back. “Excellent!”
"Why'd you choose to live here, though? Why not Bolide, or some other town that isn't ruled by an insane tyrant?"
He placed his glass on the counter with a clink. He looked pensive as he reached for another, picking it up and slowly wiping the rag along the inside.
“I came here hoping to make it free like Bolide. Instead it became my home. I started running a bar after a while. My weapons and armor melted into a kitten. I layered myself into the woodwork, and now I have no power when I leave. I am little more than a normal man when I leave this place.”
He began to laugh.
“I’m no carpenter, so I’m not even sure the place would be standing if I wasn’t so incredibly infused into this place through hundreds of years.”
I nodded, wide-eyed, as I considered the implications of his statement. He had tied his soul, his very being, into the frame of this building. As soon as he stepped foot outside, he would lose his strength, his powers, everything. But would he lose his immortality? How would he age?
“Go get some sleep, son," he said, interrupting my thoughts. "And let your dragon free in the room, nobody will bother you. The creatures hate to be contained.”
I nodded and stood up. Praevalidus lifted his hand in a salute as I picked up my key and went up onto the third floor. The room was sparse, but nicer than downstairs had been. I clicked the door shut behind me and opened the flap of my pack.
Glaesum soared out of my pack and landed with a clatter on the floor. He shot me a dirty look and I sat on the bed.
“I’m sorry. They don’t like dragons, you know that.” He huffed and climbed onto the bed, curling up just as if he were a cat. I laid next to him and stroked his glistening scales. “Goodnight, Glaesum," I whispered as I drifted off to sleep.