Another world-building story, this time for a classic tolkienesque fantasy world. Which leads to a rare genre combination, this is an epic fantasy short story. Just don’t expect the world to be saved by the end of it.
Since I was strapped for time it’s mostly straight up story telling. But I blame Sylvestra, she’s in more of a hurry than me!
A mysterious stranger stood at the threshold of the wayside inn and surveyed the room. Mysterious strangers were a dime a dozen here at the crossroads of Theoldus, the inn’s patrons didn’t even spare a glance. Just another figure in a dark cloak of unwashed wool, hooded face impossible to make out against the glare of the noonday sun.
The cloaked stranger walked over to a table and sat right next to a tall elf strumming his lyre. The elf turned towards her. “Is there a song you’d like to hear?”
“It is a song of the dragon war, and we shall sing it together.” The stranger’s voice echoed out of the cloak like church bells, resonant and strong.
The elf just smiled. “There are so many songs about the eternal war, you’ll have to be more specific.”
“We shall write this song togther, with our deeds. You must come with me.”
“If Apollo wills it.” The elf played a minor chord. “My name’s Larry, what’s yours?”
“I am Sylvestra, the Silver-”
As soon as she spoke her name, Larry turned to shout at the bar. “Wonderful. Innkeep, a round for me and my new friend here!”
Sylvestra sneered under her hood. “I don’t drink.”
“You’re in an elven form, you drink. So what brings a dragon to these crossroads?”
“You. We seek to destroy the lair of a red dragon, using the earthquake spell your god has entrusted you with as his high priest.”
Mid-pour, the innkeeper dropped his flagon of mead. It shattered on the floor as he stammered. “You’re the high priest of Apollo? Consorting with dragons in my inn? Please have mercy-”
Larry waved him down. “Relax, please. I’m just here to play my lyre. Can I help you with that spill?”
“Oh no sir, I’ll get it.” He rushed off to get a towel, as Larry poured from his glass into Sylvestra’s until they were equal.
“And you came here for me? Cheers.” Larry raised his glass, but Sylvestra did not even touch hers.
Her tone remained implacable. “Will you assist us, or not?”
“Where’s that typical silver dragon gregariousness?”
“The war rages as we speak. If you do not help us, I must haste to find a powerful sorcerer. Or something. I haven’t the time to chat.”
Larry smiled, refusing to be intimidated by the determination in her voice. “On a whim, I did prepare earthquake this morning.” The innkeeper trembled behind the counter as Larry spoke. “But I don’t intend to get involved in the dragon war. It doesn’t seem to be a priority for Apollo, so I can’t spend his time on it. My time is his time, has been since I was ordained.”
Sylvestra scoffed. “Yet you can spend his time playing the lyre in a wayside inn?”
“Of course! He’s the patron god of music and loves to see it shared. I even know a song about that-”
As he picked up his lyre again, Sylvestra put her hand down on top of it to stop him. “Come with me, and I’ll tell you a story of when the servants of Apollo were sent by their god to fight alongside the silver dragons.”
Larry paused. “In the annals of all history that I have been taught, I know not of such an event.”
“I can assure you it is true. I was there, though but a wyrmling, four millennia ago.”
Larry was shocked. And yet the ancient dragons were known to be millennia old. It is even rumored that some have existed since the dawn of time… He whispered to her, “I must know.”
“Then you must fight alongside me. This is my price.”
“Very well. Tell me your tale, and when you are done I swear to join you in battle.”
“Swear upon your god.”
Larry took a deep breath and strummed his lyre. The chord rang out clear and true, he took it as a sign that Apollo was okay with this. Going against his god, even by accident, would cost him everything. Curiosity plagued his elven mind but more than one elf had fallen to the allure of forbidden knowledge before. He looked deep into the shadows of her cowl as he spoke. “In Apollo’s name, I swear it.”
Sylvestra drew back her hood and clasped her flagon. “I guess I’ll have that drink now.” In this form she was a beautiful elven lady, with silver hair and the fairest skin. Pale blue eyes accentuated her beauty, and silver earrings the shape of dragon wings subtly hinted at her true nature. After a long pull from her flagon, she began her tale:
“It should not surprise you that with the might of Apollo and the Silver dragons combined, victory was swift and certain. So the story begins long before that alliance, at the birthing of the world, and the creation of circumstances that made dragons, humanoids, and all we would fight over.
“At the dawn of time, there was Dragos. The mother of all dragons. No-one knows from whence she came, but by the dawn of time she was already ancient. She came to this world while it was still unformed, a raging torrent of magma and ash, with oceans that steamed and boiled. Upon the greatest of the volcanoes she perched, and took dominion of it. The fire cooled, the waters mellowed, and the first island became also the first dragon lair.
“She played her claws in the water, stirring new life. But this was not like the life stirred up by the humanoid gods, whole races formed in their image. These were tiny creatures that swam in the ocean and in the air with equal ease, and they multiplied exponentially in the presence of Dragos. Soon their skeletons clumped together and formed the first dragon coral in the waters around her island. The creatures lived in and around the coral and Dragos for millenia, a whole ecosystem built around her essence. These symbiotes of Dragos were known as Draumites, and were the first new life upon this world-”
“Impossible!” shouted Larry. “The gods created all life on our world, and they were here since the beginning!”
Sylvestra’s voice remained level. “Your world, perhaps. But in the lore of dragons, our world starts earlier. With Dragos, and the Draumites, on the first island.”
Larry muttered, “Tell your story then.”
“Over time, more islands emerged from the cooling waters. The coral around Dragos had grown vast, creating an entire continent of coral, but a continent of unclaimed land had risen too. This is when your gods came, and they took possession of the unclaimed continent. They reshaped it to their will, turning barren rock and clay soils into jungles, mountains and rivers. They filled the island with life, and they formed the ten races of humanoids to populate the land.”
Larry spoke up. “Now that sounds like the beginning that I was taught. The creation of Ezora, the first pilgrimage, the war of the orbs…”
Sylvestra waved him down. “I’m sure the humanoids did a bunch of orb wars and stuff like that once they were made. But in dragon lore we skip forward a century. To when the humanoids first encountered the coral.
“A ship filled with goblins sailed away from the continent. Starving and delirious from their long voyage, they first tried to eat it. Or perhaps they were mining, or collecting samples; regardless of exactly why, they chipped the coral and Dragos felt it immediately. This was her first encounter with the humanoids, and was almost her last. Uninterested with the explosion of new life on her world, she lifted the coral and thus her lair into the sky. Miles from the ground, obscured by clouds, she and the floating coral were now out of reach of the fledgling humanoids. But not out of reach of their gods.
“Arawn, the god of the goblin mariners, was the first to notice Dragos and told the others immediately. That such a powerful creature had escaped their notice was of great concern to the gods. They all came up with plans, from murder (Set is not very creative) to trapping her inside a magical board game (Lugh can be a little too creative). As the gods debated and prepared their response, Zeus quietly left their council to act on his own.
“The gods had no divine influence over the coral, so Zeus transformed himself into an albatross and flew for days to reach Dragos, in the very center of the flying continent. He perched near Dragos and began to sing.
“The albatross is not the most musical of birds, but it intrigued Dragos. She had never heard singing before, the music of the wind and the ocean was all she had ever known. Once he had her attention Zeus changed into his elven form and continued to sing with the divine beauty of an elven counter-tenor. Enraptured, Dragos listened to him sing for three days and three nights until Zeus finally stopped to speak with her.
“He spoke of how the humanoids were creatures of diversity and imagination, covering many spectrums from the covetous goblins to the graceful elves. He invited Dragos to change into a humanoid, and sample the lands and races that the gods had made. She accepted.
“Over the next few decades Zeus showed Dragos all ten of the humanoid races. Their strengths, their weaknesses, and their music. From the bone drums of the orcs to the sweet lyre of Apollo, Dragos took it all in as Zeus led her through the lands of all the races living above and below surface; even through the aquatic kingdoms of the naga. Critically, he taught Dragos about mortality and the life cycle of humanoids, encouraging her to mate with each race as a learning experience. This led to the ten first dragonborn, children of Dragos, and the ancestors of all dragons today. One of these ten was Silvia, my mother, the first silver dragon.”
Larry gasped. He had heard tales of the first silver dragon before, but it suddenly struck him just how old the dragons were and how close he was to a piece of living history. It’s one think to call a dragon ‘ancient’, it’s quite another to be led through the millennia of a truly ancient life.
Sylvestra continued: “But the gods were not content to sit by and watch as the new race of dragonborn was created. Whether they were jealous of the new hybrids, or merely unwilling to share their role as creators, the gods rallied around a devious plan. Even Zeus, who had grown fond of Dragos from their time together, was apparently still loyal to his humanoid progeny above her.
“The ten dragonborn, each born from a different race, were each invited by that race to rule over them as an immortal empress. The dragonborn of the kobolds was seduced by the promise of power alone, and little more was needed for many others. Some dragonborn, like Silvia who felt no need for dominion, were still lured to the surface with promises of art and knowledge.
“Once each dragonborn arrived at ‘their’ nation, they were brought into the main temple for a crowning ceremony. The lynchpin of the gods’ plan, once the crown touched their heads they became a puppet of the humanoid gods. For the gods could not affect Dragos directly, but her partially humanoid children were vulnerable to divine influence. Once controlled, the gods finally had a weapon that could remove Dragos from their world.
“Dragos saw her children arrayed for battle against her, and she wept. For the one thing she admired most of the humanoids was love. From the smallest gnome to the largest orc, all humanoids were driven by their love for beauty, for their nation, or for their family. Her final act was one of love for her children, as she used her power to take all the humanoid essence from them and into herself. The ten Dragonborn were freed from divine enthrallment and transformed into the first dragons as we now know them. Dragos, filled with humanoid essence and vulnerable to the wrath of the gods, was doomed. She plunged downwards through the coral, shattering it, and dived deep into the ocean from whence she never returned.
“This provides the context for when Apollo aided the silver dragons. For now ten dragons, each of different hue and aim, had to split the shattered coral between themselves. Unwilling to live on land with the treacherous humanoids, they built their lairs and carved out their territory on the coral reefs of the sky. Territories that pressed up against each other, and that had taken millennia to grow to their current size.
“Once the dragons began to lay their eggs, and once the wyrmlings hatched, these small territories began to chafe even the most placid dragons. The chromatic dragons began to bicker and snipe with each other over bits of coral, as the metallics met in secret to try to learn more about the Draumites and how to grow coral faster.
“One day, as the metallic dragons were cloistered on a mountain top in council, the chromatics stopped their skirmishing to talk of a solution for themselves. Gregor, the first of the green dragons, saw the undefended lairs of the metallics as easily conquerable territory. He united the chromatic dragons to one cause; they would take all the metallic coral and divide it amongst themselves. Thus began the dragon war.
“In the first assault, the chromatics seized the lairs of copper and bronze without contest. Some bronze wyrmlings escaped, but Colus lost all her copper hatchlings that day. By the time the metallics rallied, they were outnumbered and the chromatics were fortifying their new holdings for the inevitable counter-attack.
“This is when Silvia came to the gods of the Elves and asked for their help. Once the chromatics took control of the sky they would next expand to the surface, extinguishing all humanoid life in the process. The description of this inevitable conclusion immediately convinced Apollo and Hercules, and a host of elven warriors was dispatched to aid Silvia in the war. So riled were the gods of good that the paladin orders of the humans, halflings, and gnomes were all rallied in support of the metallic dragons.
“Humanoid gods may have little direct impact upon the coral, but once flown up there the humanoid warriors exerted their full influence. Chromatic dragons were driven back across the sky, culminating in the event we seek to replicate today – a mighty Earthquake spell was cast on the lair of Gregor, shattering the coral and the base of power for the green dragons.”
Larry murmured in amazement. “You can shatter the coral…” No material, not icesteel, not obsidian, not even the bones of then dragons themselves was as hard as dragon coral.
Sylvestra stood up. “Now that you have heard the tale of Apollo’s first influence in the dragon war, we shall go and enact the next.”
Larry stayed seated. He held up his hand for her to wait. “You have not yet finished your story. With such a mighty alliance so long ago, how does the war continue to this day?”
“The casting of Earthquake was the last act made by the elves on the coral. After that spell, all humanoids withdrew to the surface. We continued to advance on our own, but with unwarranted boldness. We were pushed back, the dragon war continues to this day, and of all the races of humanoids only kobolds have returned to the coral in numbers.”
“Kobolds,” spat Larry. “They love dragons more than the gods who created them.”
“They now live around the dragon lairs, minions and slaves the lot of them.” Sylvestra glanced at his lyre, as she continued to speak. “If your god wishes their death, join me and we shall slay many this day.”
“I still have not heard the end of your story,” said Larry as he got up from the bench, “but I believe that you have told me what you know.”
Sylvestra shook her head. “There is no end to the story of the dragon war.”
“But why did the elves retreat in victory? And what of the other races; if even the reclusive dwarves rallied their paladins then what kept the Orcs away from such a good fight?”
“I do not know, but Apollo surely does.” As she spoke she locked eyes with Larry. “He could tell his high priest at any time.” Slowly, realization dawned across his face.
“It seems that it is not for me to know.” Larry frowned. “Let’s go.”
She left the inn, and Larry followed her out of the hamlet. A scattered few shops joined the inn and a cottage or two as the total count of buildings at the crossroads of Theoldus. Beyond them was just roads and pastures; Sylvestra headed towards one of the pastures now. Bleating, the sheep fled in terror from the woman walking softly to the middle of the pasture. Larry sensed it too and hung back, giving her plenty of room to change into her true form. Her cloak and skin surged outwards, soon she strode upon the pasture as a gargantuan dragon. Over thirty feet long, her head alone as tall as Larry was, covered in scales that shined like her namesake metal. Her true eyes, milky white pearls that have lost all color with age, stared into the depths of Larry’s soul.
Her voice rang out again, and the grass bowed in deference. “Ready?”
Larry nodded, and stepped into her outstretched claw. She placed him on her back and he hugged a dorsal spike hard as his stomach lurched. They were flying, each beat of her mighty wings sending them higher into the air. “I hope we don’t have far to fly,” shouted Larry as he struggled to keep down his mead.
Sylvestra let out a peal of laughter, echoing like bells. Then she sang a note that cut through the echo, through the wind, and through the very sky itself as it formed a portal directly in their path. They flew through it and arrived at the lair of Regula, first of the red dragons.
Being the lair of the most ancient and powerful of red dragons literally colored the scene before them. The dragon coral was tinged with red from the Draumites that had bonded with their master. A kobold city, with red flags and pennants flying from the castle ramparts, and the with a mess of hovels outside the walls that had been built on and out of the ashes of the last generation. And fire; blazing orange fires ringed the city and covered the entrance to the coral caves, the true dragon’s lair.
The battle was in full swing by the time they arrived. Kobold slingers and spear throwers on the ramparts were a mere nuisance being swept away by dragons’ breath. The lightning breath of a bronze dragon slayed kobolds on one side, and on the other side a brass dragon more peacefully subdued them with sleeping gas breath. Gold and red dragons clawed at each other in the air above the castle, each reflexively spewing harmless fire onto their opponent. On the keep the kobolds’ captain tried to protect a kobold sorcerer, holding off a small bronze dragon as his comrade wreathed the defenders with arcane magics.
Sylvestra muttered, “I knew that if I stopped to chat I’d get here late.” Breathing ice and frost onto the fire ringing of the castle, the fire went out in a wide arc. She landed in the new clearing, and lifted Larry off her back. “Cast your spell now, as the battle rages!”
Larry was all too keen to complete his task. He grabbed the spell’s components from a pouch inside his tunic – dirt, rock and clay. Crushing them together in his fist, he cast them to the coral beneath his feet as he shouted the words of power.
Larry was stunned, dumb-struck, at the lack of results. He could feel the divine power of Apollo in his blood, staying there, refusing to enter the world. Before he could reflect on it further, he lost conciousness. Sylvestra picked up his fallen body, sang a soft and soothing tune that resonated with the healing magic of dragons, and he woke up in a panic.
The panic was from what happened while he was unconcious. For the fainting spell was not caused by hunger or fear, but a divine intervention from Apollo himself. In that instant he saw Apollo, his adonis-like body looming over the castle as the battle seemed to freeze and spears hung in the air. Apollo looked at him and shook his head. This spell, this attempt to influence the dragon war, it was not to be. But the shaking was so gentle, he knew Apollo would not forsake him now. Time still frozen, his gaze sped along clouds and coral for a mile or two until it stopped on a flight of black dragons. Middle-aged, these dragons alone may not turn the fight, but their riders would. Upon the backs of the dragon were humans: archers, wizards, knights. The reinforcements that would shut this attack down hard and force the metallics into a costly retreat. This was what he saw just before he opened his eyes and returned to conciousness.
Larry shouted into her ear as he regained his senses. “Apollo sent me a vision, we have to leave. Now!”
Sylvestra was bemused, “Your god does not want you in the war after all?”
“There’s chromatic reinforcements on the way! Apollo won’t let me interfere, but there are black dragons with human heroes on them and they sure look like they can interfere. They’ll interfere us all if we don’t retreat!”
From his position astride her back Larry could not see the full extent of Sylvestra’s displeased glare, but she tossed it over her shoulder anyways. Then she screamed; a loud, high-pitched wail that the other metallic dragons took up as one chorus. It was their signal for retreat. The metallic dragons fell back, to fight another day. And another. And another. For there was no end in sight for the eternal dragon war.