Looking forward to this day made my father so happy, and yet so concerned. I rather wish I knew why. It wasn’t all that common for the sole magic protector to pass on his talents to the next generation of dragons, but why would it sadden him?
“How much does this cost?” voices in the background.
One of the villagers was having a yard sale, numerous baubles and trinkets from decades past lay sprawled across numerous tables. Bored looking customers stalked between the lines, hard claws biting into the ground and their thick heads weaving between hand-me-down toys. I saw a few other dragons trying to keep a twitchy tail in check, presumably not all that happy to be there and hoping to leave soon. At least one, broad shouldered and covered in hard rocky plates from face to tail, gave a jealous look in my direction.
I was just passing by after all.
Maybe dad was disappointed that he’d lose his position after so much time of dedicated service? Or, also possible that he wanted to hold onto his power, even if people really didn’t have much reason to appreciate it. The prestige of a wizard was in a somewhat dubious state these days.
“Oh, this? Well it’s an enchanted scroll that can display entire books within the space of a single page. Simply speak the incantation to watch ink re-arrange itself to whatever page you desire. I’ll give it to ya for a half pent” A crodgedy old dragon with lean muscles on the shoulders but a sagging pot belly that betrayed his age. Armored plating always looked sturdy and tough, but the soft underbelly still required effort to keep in shape. At least, if you wanted a shape other than round.
Hrmm, dad never was the selfish type. He was the village healer after all, even if his magic didn’t quite hold up when paired against a proper hospital and skilled doctors. He was the protector, and would do everything he could to make sure dragons everywhere were safe. It felt instead, the last few times I’ve spoken with him, as if he worried for me rather than for himself.
“Niiiice. That’s really cheap, what sort of apps can you get on it?” the one customer’s enthusiasm seemed to wear on the others. Maybe those three dragons were together? It would make sense if they were waiting for the one guy to pick out something he liked.
This left me wondering why dad would be so distraught over me, and why he was still happy despite his concerns. The most I could imagine is that he wasn’t certain I’d be good at magic. It takes a long time and a lot of practice, and I was never really all that excited about learning any.
“You’re thinking of a kindle sir, after all this is just magic. You can’t expect it to do anything complicated or fancy like those electronics your used to, all it can hold is like … the one book. That’s it.”
As I was rounding the corner and leaving that scene behind me, the happy and expectant customer suddenly looked as bored and annoyed as the others alongside him.
I breathed. Deep and slow, long and hard, just to clear my thoughts.
This was supposed to feel like a big achievement, a huge world changing affair. The protector of all dragons was handing down not only his position, but also his power. The protector’s son was going to take up the mantle, and suddenly you’d have Guardian Kenneth, wizard and healer extradinaire!
Right. An eighteen year old, stocky and large, about twelve feet tall and twenty feet long. Tan color scales, and a lighter shade of tan along my face and chest. When I say dragon, don’t go expecting lizards and fire breathing either, I don’t exactly have wings and it’s not like I can spit lava at people. Or ever would do so even if that was a capability of mine.
But I wasn’t an entirely impressive specimen, and magic as a whole was even less impressive on top of that.
This was supposed to feel like a huge moment, and yet for some reason it was politeness alone that kept me going through the motions. Knowing that this wasn’t going to change anything about my life, and I wasn’t going to change the world. Maybe magicians will seem a tad more impressive when their magical guardian is someone young and proud, rather than clumsy and unlucky who’s constantly bent over from one or more blows to the belly that just seem to come out of nowhere, but it’s not like there was a grand war to fight or any direct threat I have to set out and deal with.
Dad was old.
And I didn’t care much about magic, just like the rest of the modern age. Maybe that’s what has him upset? Knowing the passion is gone, or the awareness that before too long no one will even know there was a guardian, let alone why we need one. If that was the case then quite suddenly I can’t help but feel bad. It’s my fault after all, this should be something huge and exciting and yet for me it just felt like yet another Tuesday. But then playing pretend for just today won’t make him feel better, will it?
The least I can do is be respectful and humor the man. He was my dad, and this was important to him even if no one else seemed to mind. And having magic powers could be cool, I might have some neat party tricks to show off by the end of this.
He was there.
Just a few days after coming of age, a short walk to his father’s abode, and now was the time to get this done with all of the grandeur and splendor it deserved. With the morning rays of sunlight flickering across his back, he pads inside.
“Ah! Kenneth, come in. Please, come in.” the old dragon sounded a touch winded, one clawed hand reaching up to smooth over his belly. “Once we have begun, there is no reversing the process son. Are you ready?”
There was nothing to it but to offer a sagely nod. “I am ready father. What must I do.”
The larger dragon crooks his teeth into a smile. “Sit. Please, sit here and listen. There is much I have not told you, and now find I have delayed for so long ... but perhaps it’s better that I kept the secret. And you may reach the same conclusion as I.”
My eyebrows narrowed at this. Though I said nothing and flopped down into a padded surface. Like a cat sitting upright, my tail curled up around my legs and my chin held high.
Father produced a shimmering blue orb made of glass, roughly half the size of my hand, and placed it between the two of us with all the gentle care of a mother lifting her newborn pup.
“Centuries ago.” My father spoke in reverent tones, his claws glowing and the air between him and that orb seeming to sparkle. “A great and wise mage beseeched the gods, asking that the one true weakness of a dragon be protected.”
“Dragons don’t have any weaknesses.” I pipe up automatically. Claws, fangs, bigger than a lion. We weren’t exactly mythical world ending terrors, but when you have rock-hard skin that’s tougher than full plate it’s really hard to say anything on you is weak.
“The belly, son. Your soft underbelly.”
I frown at this. There was the temptation to say something, but a moment of thought told me it was true. The belly was squishy and soft, and unlike the rest of a dragon it wasn’t covered in thick sliding plates. But a dragon’s underbelly was hard to hit, and any blows had to come at an odd angle. Most dragons live their entire lives without anything being able to touch their tummy, save all but the most clumsy.
Then again my dad got sucker punched all the time, usually by complete accident or wild contrivance. Maybe he read an old passage the wrong way and then just started on wishful thinking.
I decided to stay quiet and listen, because it was hard to phrase a question about that subject and still be respectful. Belly blows had to be something of a personal issue to a man who experiences them constantly.
“The gods granted this wish, but only under one condition. The mage himself, and all of his predecessors, must atone for every blow that would have landed had this magic not intervened. The mage, what has now become known as the guardian, acts as a barrier taking all of the stomach blows other dragons would have otherwise suffered.”
As he speaks I can see my father’s breath. Starting as a misty white sparkle, then solidifying into a solid blob of light and glitter. It hangs in the air around his every word, it sinks and flows into the gem like a river spiraling over a whirlpool. I can see distinct colors within the mist, shimmering orange and bright reds acting as stars against the blue outline.
The rest of the room seems to grow dark. Slowly enough I didn’t notice until blackness encroached upon our doorframe, until the luminous shade of his magic cast it’s shadows upon the both of us.
He continued his lecture, and I didn’t stop him.
“This magic is … hrm. To any outsider it simply appears as if the blow never happened, a narrow miss on the protected individual. For the mage, it seems instead as if the world conspires to humiliate them, as if every minor chance for a strike to the belly is acted upon by the fates themselves. A curse of bad luck, an unending stream of easily explained coincidences.”
The energy stops flowing from him, and now all of it seems to wash over me instead. Snaking trails of shimmering blue light that wraps around my clawtips or sinks within my palms. I can feel the delightful tingle, the strange sense of effortless weightlessness and springy movement that seems to be the afterglow of its touch.
A thought struck me, that my father could easily have gone mad. To see connections where there were none, perhaps conspire some way to attribute magic to his unending clumsiness, or invent some way that his magic helps people on a daily basis just to retain his sense of worth. What better way to convince people how useful your magic is than to lie about what it’s doing. I’ve never been hit in the belly, but that’s because it’s hard to hit me there. Not because of a magic force field or divine magical luck … but he can point to the lack of damage and say it was all stopped preemptively, and without any active effort on his part.
Hrm. It doesn’t have to be a lie either, just a false connection. The original Guardian clearly made some sacrifice to the gods, and if there was any misconception or vagueness about what that sacrifice was then dad could all too readily jump on that as the reason for his misfortune. He won’t have to blame himself for it, he can just blame the magic. All while feeling useful in a world that never seems to appreciate what he does accomplish …
I say none of this of course.
Closing my eyes, I breathe, and that sparkling blue with tiny flecks of yellow and green and brilliant white stars all seem to converge around my head. Flowing into my jaws like smoke into a vacuum, slowly dissipating all while the darkness encroaches ever closer. This was quite the impressive show, and I did feel a notable difference as my father cast his final spell. It would be impolite to voice my suspicions on a suffering old man.
Let him have this. His feelings aren’t hurting anyone, and calling him senile wouldn’t help anything.
“My son.” The deep, sagely voice continues. A soft reverence to his words, a knowing guilt that eats away at the obvious pride he shows for this one moment. “With the completion of this spell, my final act as guardian, your grand quest now begins.”
I watch as the darkness creeps away until it’s wrapped around each of us like a warm blanket. The blue glass gem sat between the two of us as if pretending to be a campfire, my own breath alight with a vibrant energy. And at the same time I can watch as his light dims, the magic fading away. The darkness edging over his skin faster than it graced me.
“My son, you will now be able to absorb magic, with every breath you will take from the ground and sky, you sup from the eather and add it into yourself. But this is merely the capacity for power, having magic deep within you is not the same as being able to control it. To release it in useful ways.”
His voice drones into a soft echo. His visage disappears, the room smothered in inky blackness. I can see the gem, and I can see myself, alight and sparkly with that trailing blue whisp flowing over my flesh like water, seeping into my veins faster and stronger in each new moment. My body light and my movements graceful, I feel stronger and faster and healthier than ever before.
And just like that …
“Son? Are you alright?”
The blackness recedes. My vision returns, and yet my vision had never left. This felt strange and disorienting to experience, a nightmare to try and describe. With a shake of my head I quickly came to the conclusion it was best not to think about. Instead basking in the delightful sensation of …
As if I’ve only just woken up to a bright new day after the best night of sleep. If this is what dad felt like all the time, then I envy him.
“Y-yeah. I’m fine, yeah. I think my eyes stopped working for a moment but everything’s good now.” I manage to stutter, doing my level best to keep calm and not start bouncing around just to tire myself out. It was a desperate struggle to remain in my seat.
Dad lifted up his hind quarters with a solemn expression, eyes drooped and yet a grim smile on his face.
“Very well, to complete your awakening you will need to travel. There is a shrine to the far north that one must pray to, the easiest method in which one contacts the gods. I have a map here that should help.” He pivots on his hips, extends a claw toward a nearby shelf, and th-
Pain. Sprawling. I couldn’t breathe anymore.
An indescribable agony formed over my belly button like a rod of hot coals digging into the abdomen. A pain I have never once felt, nor had I even imagined. Eyes wide and tears welling behind them, my shoulders flat on the ground and my tail curled up between my legs, I finally noticed what hit me.
He … he actually whapped me in the stomach with it when he was turning around!
Why would you do this!
“Son! I’m so sorry, I …” he was quick to settle down at my side and help lift me back up. One muscular palm extending out to rub at the sore spot, the pain receding slowly but surely with a dull fade. “It has already begun. And now you must bear the gift, and the burden, in my stead.”
Was that guilt in his eyes? Ah, right. That must be why he struck me, a tiny little gesture he could perform to help make his ravings seem more credible. I grit my teeth, force a smile to my face, and stagger up onto four paws.
“A-apology accepted dad.” It wouldn’t do to make accusations, though if he starts hitting me again I am going to be cross. “Just hurt a little bit. You said something about a map?”
He closes his eyes and nods. “Yes. It will require long travel, but … hrm. Maybe it’s best if I let you experience having this power to begin with, so you are not surprised by this gift while on a dangerous journey.”
To be perfectly honest I wasn’t all that ready to commit to going anywhere, but I’m not going to say that to him. Or even make the decision either way just yet, after all I might enjoy a peaceful trip. There are few things dangerous to a dragon.
“Of course father. How about a trip to the library to clear your mind? This must have been a stressful day for you.” And if this is what he does when he’s stressed, it was in my best interests to help him relax.
“Yes. That would be nice Kenneth.”
And so we both left the building. That glass gemstone, large and bright and shimmering like the night sky was reflected in its surface, was left behind where it sat.
The pain in my gut had all but dissipated now, breathing was a lot easier, and it felt good to be using this energy as opposed to just sitting still and waiting. Walking side by side through the streets, we saw people getting to work or opening up their shops. We saw crowds of dragons milling through the road, carrying bags over their shoulders or between their teeth. Off to the distance was a lush park with numerous young children, each roughly half my size, playing around with a bouncy ball while parents watched. There was a young couple touching noses together across the street, an openly romantic display.
Looking ahead to the library it was clear to see why dad liked it. An old style building modeled in a time when ‘magical’ was still a popular aesthetic. The dusty old tomes seemed to be more revered within those walls than anything new or modern, and so much of the mysticism about it must have served as a touch of nostalgia for him.
And yet the man still had guilt in his eyes. As if he was happy about some accomplishment, but beating himself up over the fact he was happy. Having this magic in me did feel wonderful, and I was starting to suspect I would honestly miss this if I ever had to give it away, bu- …
I was on the sidewalk before I could even register what happened, something round slammed its way into my tummy and pressed hard against the soft flesh. It felt like something had just punched me and was now holding it’s fist there, round and solid and jammed between the folds of my skin. My back doubled over until my face was in my knees, I ushered out a single whispered gasp before I could take no further breath.
With a gentle flop I was down and wheezing, my arms too stiff to move and my tail lashing in wild abandon.
Ohgodswhy that hurts so bad …
“Son!” my father’s voice was alarmed, but not surprised. Solemn and knowing, as if he’d planned this. Or expected it. With a groan I tried to stagger back up, only to feel that ….
It was a ball.
Those kids playing with their ball. Somehow it managed to fly all the way out in my direction, bounce off the ground next to me at just the perfect angle, and then get lodged into my tummy at ridiculous speeds.
It was hard to move with that thing stabbed bellow my rib cage. The pillowy flesh of my underbelly at once easy to mold, and durably thick, one had to get through almost a foot of solid pudge before actual risk of damage was an issue. But by golly it hurt right now.
Dad wasted no time trying to help, but his assistance was at once odd, and something I was too breathless to fight against. He lifts against my shoulders and rolls me over onto my back. Belly up, the ball still wedged between numerous lumps of taut belly fat, stuffed and strong like the rest of my body.
He scoops his claws beneath my spine, each arm reaching into the small of my back. With gentle care he lifts, leaning onto his hind legs and throwing his head back. His arms bulging with the strain and his old legs managing the weight with gusto.
My belly is raised high, but my legs and tail dangle down one side while my head hangs over the other. Stretching my whole body out into a curved arch with my belly as the outside of it, and my spine as the inner curve.
I take a deep breath, gasping hard, and the ball pops out with a comical ‘plop’ sound. The bwoing and bouncy sounds it makes upon reaching the ground bring out an all new level of annoyance, but I wasn’t in any position to grumble. It was all I could manage just to breathe. Be calm and breath, accept the pain and allow it to fade.
It all faded faster while dad was helping, even after he sets me back to the floor.
“An old trick I’ve learned after doing this for so long.” He lectures as if this were a piece of divine wisdom. “Sometimes things get wedged into your belly, and using your claws to dig them out doesn’t always work.”
A flicker of doubt formed in my head as to whether he was just insane or if this was all true. But a coughing wheeze, a muttered, “thank you” and a soft groan as my hands reach down to massage the injured lump were all I could manage. My faster assisting with a gentle touch of his claws.
“My ball! Thank you mister!” I heard one of the kids shouting. I never realized they were this close, or even that they were heading my direction. A nod wasn’t beyond my capabilities, and already the pain had faded away such that I could bare it.
A few more seconds and I suspect it would be gone entirely, after all there wasn’t a bruise and nothing was actually damaged beyond the skin being overly sensitive. With a nod of my head I curl up and try to stand, watching the kid reach for his ball.
Impossibly, he missed …
Even more impossibly, the child stumbled forward, managing to trip on all four legs at once and try to catch himself. The ball keeps rolling beneath him.
Every single coincidence imaginable all lined up to make sure that the ball was directly beneath his hind leg right as he was leaning back onto two feet for balance.
His legs are thrown forward as if he’d slipped on a puddle of marbles, his momentum carries him in my direction, his hard shelled back facing the ground and his belly in the air.
I had only just enough time to mouth ‘no …’ before he landed. Directly on top of me. His full back, the armored plates as thick and jagged as stone, slammed down on top of me and all but folded me in half.
From the impact alone I could see my feet as more inches away from my nose, and yet my tail was stiff and wild from the outright shock.
This kid weighed about half again as much as I did, albeit I was a touch on the bulky side, and every last pound of him went directly into my belly button.
Eyes wide, mouth open, a cough of spittle touching against my lips. There were no words. There just wasn’t … why … gngg …
“ughg.. Oh! Sorry, again sorry mister, I didn’t mean to drop here.” The child genuinely apologizes, and yet stands up to crawl away none worse for the wear. My head flops back to the ground and my pained tummy throbbing for attention.
Attention it rightly receives once my dad goes back to rubbing it. Not protecting it from more attacks, simply massaging so that I’d feel better sooner. And to be perfectly honest it was working.
“W-why …” I wheezed. Already feeling my strength return, even now noticing how my tum was devoid of genuine injury, just that slap of pain on an area far too sensitive.
“It has already begun my child. I had hoped the first day would be more forgiving, but it seems …”
Ohymygodno … he wasn’t insane. If … if he was actually telling the truth …
All of a sudden, that noticeable look of guilt in his eyes made all the sense in the world.