Silas

Beyond the seas, above the clouds, there existed the Realm of Dragons. To adequately describe its grand splendor would have been a nearly impossible feat for even the most skilled narrator. But the dragon hatcheries, which lay within the dark, cold, wet bowels of the realm were easy enough to describe.

They were dark. They were cold. And they were wet.

The silver drake approached the checkout counter. She said nothing, barely even glanced at Silas, as she handed him her engraved token.

“Be right back.”

Silas trudged deeper into the hatcheries. He stepped in a puddle, which was expected. The whole place was a puddle with occasional bits of moist, muddy ground. Most dragons didn’t mind the conditions, but as a peluda, his fur was getting mildewed.

On the way, he passed Gen, carrying a few eggs back to their parents. He liked Gen. He liked her feathers, the way she slithered. He liked her sense of humor, though they hadn’t talked much. She noticed the token clutched in his talons. “Ooh, silver drakes. I hear they’re good tippers.”

“Better be,” he grumbled.

She chuckled, but why wouldn’t she. At the rate she was going, she’d have a decent enough starter hoard to be out of here in a century. He’d miss her when she was gone.

Deeper he went, coming across the cache of silver dragon eggs. Dragons laid their eggs, dropped them off in the hatchery for a century or two, came back when they were due to crack. They also didn’t care if the egg they got back was the egg they deposited. They just wanted a good one.

Silas picked through the cache. Most weren’t ready to hatch. As part of the job he’d learned to see the signs. Silver dragon eggs were large and smooth and shiny. The shinier the egg, the closer to cracking. If he picked the right one, then maybe the recipient would come back and give him a bonus. It happened sometimes. Never to him. But it happened.

He grabbed one of the larger eggs and put it to his ear. The potential hatchling sloshed around inside. Too noisy, he decided. Silver dragons liked order. They’d want a well-behaved, quiet one.

He took another. This one was heavier, and the shell gleamed even in this dark place. It was about to pop. Might not even make it all the way back to the parent’s next, but that wasn’t his problem.

He returned with the egg. The silver dragon accepted the egg with a slight nod of approval. Maybe. Hard to tell. She tossed him a sack of coins as she walked away. Silas tucked the coins in his cheek until he could deposit it in his cache later.

An ebony drake tried getting his attention as he walked away, but Silas directed the drake to Gen. “Sorry. On break. Union thing.”

Deeper in the hatchery, he took a turn into the break cavern. It was a stretch to call it a cavern. It could fit two or three mid-sized dragons, and even that would be a squeeze. It was already occupied by Old Fang. Fang was old, hence the name. Ancient, in fact. So ancient, that while he had once been the size of a mountain in his heyday with sparkling scales that shamed the sun and a bellow that could shatter the sturdiest of castles, he was smaller than Silas. Dragons grew with age, and then, like most creatures, shrank.

Fang had lost most his teeth as well. He smacked his muzzle as he poked at the goblin tied to his plate, rolling it around as it screamed.

“You shouldn’t play with your food,” said Silas.

Old Fang grumbled. “It looked good in the cage. Do you want it?”

“No, thanks. Goblins give me indigestion.” Silas looked through the snack cages. “Aw, damn it. Are we out of horses? I thought we just got a fresh delivery.”

“Horses go fast,” said Fang.

Silas glared at the sign that read One horse per day, please. It meant nothing against a dragon’s greed.

He curled up and put down his head. He’d been looking forward to his horse all day. Maybe two, if nobody was looking.

“Hard day, kid?” asked Fang.

“Normal day,” said Silas. “At this rate, I’ll be stuck down here forever.”

“Well, take my advice and don’t rush it. You think you have a retirement hoard that will last you a lifetime, but you never know.”

“You should’ve died in ritual territorial combat,” said Silas. “That would’ve been the smart move.”

“I tried. Believe me, I tried. But every punk who came along wasn’t up to the job. Not my fault nobody sent a challenger or a hero worth a damn.” He leaned his wrinkled neck forward. “Say, do you want to kill me? I’m pretty old and weak now.”

“Firstly, why would I fight you here? No glory or status in it. Secondly, remember that kid who you tricked into an honor duel? What was his name? Reginald?”

“Roger.” Fang licked his lips. “He was delicious.”

“You’re just saying that because you’re hungry. Eat your goblin.”

Shella, hatchery supervisor, poked her head in the cavern. “We’ve got a runner.”

 

The small nest of green eggs had all been cracked open, only one from the inside. The unsupervised hatchling had slurped down the others, which didn’t make Shella happy, and when Shella was unhappy, she spit acid when she talked, which splashed on Silas, Fang, and Gen. It stung, especially the bit that got in Silas’s eye.

“Who checked this section last?” asked Shella.

“I don’t know,” said Silas.

“Whoever it is, do you want me to challenge them to ritual combat?” asked Old Fang. “For the honor of the hatchery.”

“What I want is you three to find this runner before it eats any more eggs and goes feral.”

Silas sighed. “Shouldn’t we wait for runner retrieval? They’re the experts.”

Shella poked a talon in his snout. “That’s your problem, Silas. You never want to do more than the bare minimum. The longer that runner is loose, the more damage it can do. The more damage it does, the more reports I have to file. The more reports I file, the better chance I get demoted. Then you’ll have to deal with a new supervisor, and I can guarantee they’ll kill one of you just to make an impression.”

Old Fang raised a hand. “I can volunteer, if that helps.”

“Just find it,” said Shella, wiping the acid from her maw, leaving Silas, Fang, and Gen to patrol the darkened tunnels of the hatchery.

“I hate runners,” said Silas. “Still missing a patch of fur from the last one.”

“So are we supposed to kill it?” asked Gen.

“Depends on whether it has a taste for dragons,” said Fang.

“How will we know that?”

Silas shuddered, recalling the runner clamped around his arm, trying to chew his elbow off. “You’ll know.”

Old Fang said, “The best thing to do is kill it anyway. Hatchlings without something to imprint on are basically feral anyway. The Wyrm Council tend to let those ones loose on small human kingdoms where a hero will eventually kill it. Sometimes, they rent them out to villains with enough gold.”

“Sounds pretty awful,” said Gen.

“It’s an awful world. And it solves the problem.” Old Fang cocked his head to one side, listening at a branch. “I’ll go this way. You two go that way.”

“You shouldn’t go alone,” said Gen. “Could be dangerous.”

“I’ll be damned if I’m killed by a runner,” said Fang. “But, hey, maybe this will be my lucky day.”

He disappeared into the tunnel.

Even in the dark, Gen’s rainbow feathers glittered with a light of their own. It made her an obvious target, though not every runner was outright aggressive. Some were cagey. It varied.

“How close are you to finishing your hoard?” asked Silas, just making conversation.

“I already have a hoard,” she said, turning a corner cautiously. “Inherited it from my mom.”

“Then why are you here?”

She fixed him with her sparkling eyes. “I like kids. How about you?”

“Kids are okay, I guess.”

She laughed. “No, I meant, how close are you to finishing your hoard?”

“Who knows?”

She laughed again, spreading her wings around them. “We’re dragons. We always know.”

“Yeah. I guess we do,” he replied quietly as he moved closer. Their snouts came close to touching. Her tongue flicked out and licked him. Just a little bit.

Something scampered nearby, splashing in the water. Silas and Gen turned their attention toward the sound, seeing a tail disappearing behind a stalagmite. He pointed for her to go one way, and he’d go the other.

It was difficult to creep with the splashing, but Gen managed better than Silas. He readied himself for whatever came next.

The runner was a small green lindworm. Aside from ridges, they were basically giant snakes. Being wet made them slippery little bastards. This one splashed the water with its tail and hissed at Silas.

Silas lowered his head in a submissive pose as Gen sneaked up behind the runner.

“It’s okay, little one,” said Silas calmly.

He tried cooing the way his father had cooed, but it came out wrong. Too flat. The lindworm didn’t like it. It crouched in preparation to jump. Silas covered his face. There was a lot of splashing. Something slipped between his feet.

He uncovered his eyes. “Did you get it?”

Gen, sitting in the water, glared. “What do you think?”

Howls and roars came from down a tunnel. He helped her up, and they ran, happening upon the aftermath.

Old Fang held the lindworm by its tail. It writhed around, twisted up to latch its jaws around Fang’s forearm. He just laughed.

“Mean little cuss, ain’t he?” said Fang. “Then again, weren’t we all once?”

The lindworm calmed down as it chewed on Fang.

“Is this breed poisonous?” asked Fang.

“Do you mean poisonous or venomous?” asked Silas.

“What’s the difference?”

“Poisonous means it kills you if you bite it,” said Gen. “Venomous means it kills you if it bites you. And no, they aren’t poisonous or venomous.”

Old Fang nodded thoughtfully to himself. “Well, look at that. Even an ancient one can still learn something new.”

“Surprised you didn’t eat it already?” said Silas.

“Thought about it, but I think I like this little guy.”

“She’s a female,” said Gen. “You can tell by the dorsal fin pattern on the underbelly.”

“Well, that makes two things I’ve learned.” Fang stroked the lindworm’s snout with his free hand. It bit his finger. “Whose my little girl? Whose my hungry little girl?”

“You can’t keep her,” said Silas.

“Sure, I can.” She coiled around his arm, sinking her arms into his flesh over and over again. “Reminds me of myself. Do you like goblins, sweetie? I bet you do. Yes, I do.”

“Sorry I wasn’t much help before,” Silas said to Gen.

Gen shook out her feathers. “Don’t worry about it. Not really our job in the first place is it? Can he really keep her?”

“I don’t know. That’s Shella’s problem. He’ll probably eat her in a week.”

“The hatchling or Shella?” asked Gen.

“Both probably.”

They shared a wry smile.

“We should get back to the front before someone yells at us,” he said.

“Oh, one thing I forgot. Give me your hand.”

“Why?”

“Just open it, dummy.”

There are sounds a dragon makes when coughing up a half-alive dazed horse into Sila’s clutches. Any decent narrator could describe those sounds in unsettling detail, but it really wasn’t worth the time and effort.

“Saved you one,” she said as she slithered by with a wink.

Grinning, Silas swallowed his horse and followed her.

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