Target Pokemon: Dratini (complex)
Target Length: 30-40k characters
Final Length: ~39k characters
Status: Complete. Slim chance for update.
Based on a traditional Japanese folk tale. Or maybe several.
I feature one gen-5 Pokemon. Other than that, no warnings.
Comments are adored. I'll take them after the grade and on into the end of time. Please talk to me. =D
EDIT: Looks like I'm up for WWC voting. Before the suspense completely fries my brains, I need to bid everyone else good luck!
I was creature of water and magic and life. I was a dragon. He had no right.
I admit, I wasn't a very normal dragon. Most dragons were large and majestic; I was small, only about 6 feet long, no more impressive than the average snake. Most dragons were brilliant gold, but I was pale blue and white. Most dragons spent their afternoons kidnapping fair maidens and marrying them in fabulous underwater palaces; I spent mine sunbathing on the rocky banks of my river.
My river wasn't impressive, either. It was small, both in width and depth. It was hidden in the high mountains, and it flowed only a short way before uniting with a larger river. The only inhabited place nearby was a tiny temple; there were no cities or villages that lived off my water. I think the only magical property my river had-- the only reason I existed, I suppose; not every river had a dragon-- was because the spring that was the river's source came from inside the mountain of the storm god.
I didn't know the storm god; he didn't waste his time talking to lowly river guardians. I didn't mind.
That was another of my abnormalities. While most dragons would jump at the opportunity to associate with gods, I just kept to myself. I stayed by my river, sunbathing to my heart's content. It's wasn't adventure, but it was certainly comfortable.
I stretched my serpentine body over the warm rocks, reveling in the heat and light from the sun. How could I not? The sun was the mother of all creation; her caress was like the touch of life itself. I closed my eyes, letting the light soak through my skin.
However, the sun was not the only thing to touch me. Clawed hands grabbed me roughly around the middle, and I was lifted into the air. I screamed and snapped my eyes open, twisting to see who had disturbed my rest.
At first I thought it was a human, but no human would dare to touch a dragon. The figure that held me was shaped like a human, but he had rough purple skin and a fanged mouth. I could only see his torso and head; everything below his waist was covered in a swirling gray stormcloud.
I writhed in his hands, trying futilely to free myself from his tight grip. “Unhand me!” I cried.
He laughed a deep, cynical laugh. “I, Voltolos, God of the Storm, obey a tiny river dragon? Why, you're not even fully grown.” He laughed again, and began rising from the bank into the sky.
I thrashed more frantically. “By the water and waves, unhand me!”
Voltolos's rumbling laughter ceased immediately. “Shut your mouth, Puny One. Water and waves have no authority over me.” Thunder began to rumble in the sky overhead.
Using all my strength, I called on the waters of my river. My poor, sweet, tiny river.
A wave rose up, the likes of which had never been seen this far from the mighty oceans. It climbed upward, a great pillar of water that almost filled the sky, while leaving the river's true bank almost dry. The rippling liquid roared, a primal cry of power and rage. I longed to touch the water again, to feel its slick touch on my scales, to feel the current's guiding hand, to feel the rapids' rushing might. But I stayed in the sky, held tight by Voltolos's rough hands. The water's reflection glinted faintly off my dry cerulean scales.
The god's human-like face smiled mirthlessly. Thunder roared again, and a swift bolt of lightning struck the climbing waters. I screamed in pain, and the waters fell, crashing back into the riverbed.
I spoke nothing more, and the great god of storms began to speed through the sky, fast as a flash of lightning. As he flew, he spoke in low, quiet tones. “It is said the dragons harbor the greatest magics, and that their life forces are immense. You have proven that.”
I agreed; dragons are noble, powerful creatures. However, I was not an exceptional specimen.
“It is also said that you can gain another's magics by eating them, after they have been boiled in their own blood.”
I was afraid.
As we rose, flying to the peak of a jagged mountain, I felt my coveted magics draining. I was so far from water, the source of my power, that I doubted I could perform even the simplest of rites. My ability was a perfection of control, not a perfection of power. Alone, I was nothing.
We approached the mountain, a craggy peak of barren stone. This far up, there was no hint of the vegetation that surrounded my river. The gray sky was covered in thick thunderclouds; none of mother sun's rays could reach us here. I shivered. This place was dead.
Voltolos alighted on a platform near the top of the mountain, sending a cloud of black dust rippling outward. A cliff on the edge of the platform rose to form the peak of the mountain. The stone was pockmarked with holes and tunnels, like a sponge. He shoved me into one of these holes, a crevice barely large enough to house me entirely.
“Stay here, and await your fate. Pray for your soul's salvation,” Voltolos said, before lifting a large stone and blocking the entrance to my tiny hole. I heard the winds hiss as Voltolos took to the air again.
I wondered why he would leave me now, after announcing his intent. However, his reasons didn't really matter to me; I couldn't escape this hole. It was miraculous that I got into it in the first place-- the rough stone was tight against me, and it scraped and pulled free several scales every time I tried to alter my position. My scales were dry; I had no water with which to magic myself free. I couldn't escape.
Voltolos was right. I may as well start praying.
I was young for a monk, at least in this area. Everyone else at the temple was old and gray; I was still in the prime of life, square in the middle of my twenties. Fate has strange ways, I suppose.
The head monk was overjoyed when I took my vows; apparently, no one had even worshiped at this temple for a decade, much less joined it in its holy mission. In my mind, that's simply a tragedy-- it might be small, but this little riverside temple and its monks were certainly pure in heart.
One of the consequences of being the only not-ancient person in the temple's employ is that I got to do all of the physical work. Most days, the others stayed indoors, praying and chanting sutras. Generally, I got to do things like clean the shrines, collect offerings in villages, and fetch water and food. I didn't do any of the holier things.
But, that was alright. I believe heaven will bless me for my proximity to holiness, if nothing else.
So, I did my chores with a good nature. The temple was cleaner than ever before. The monks ate well-prepared food every night, though rich food it certainly wasn't. All was well; I was satisfied.
The river that ran by the temple was not large, but it was not small. You could throw a stone from one bank to the other without difficulty; however, it was deep enough that we kept reed boats to help pilgrims over the water. It was not a majestic river, but that was alright. It supplied sweeter, purer drinking water than any other I had ever visited.
It was from this river that I drew water. I held the water jar tightly as I descended the slope from the temple; the terrain was much more treacherous than one would think by looking at it. For this reason, the jar had been made out of the most durable of ceramics, and was equipped with a lid; it would be a tragedy to waste any of the water we drew on the climb back to the temple. Besides that, we wouldn't want to anger the river dragon by wasting its water.
That was another reason I thought myself richly blessed: not many people, or even temples, could boast of having the direct protection of a river dragon. Indeed, the presence of the dragon is what had drawn me here.
Several years ago, when I came to the temple for my coming-of-age ceremony, I noticed something long and pale on the riverbank. Being an inquisitive boy of twelve, I couldn't resist investigating further. The object was long, thin, and translucent, like a snakeskin, but smooth and damp. I picked it up, and carried it to the temple to show my father.
My father was inside with the head monk; when I proudly displayed the delicate film, my father waved me away, but the head monk praised heaven and beckoned to me. I gave it to him, and he told me that it was the shed skin of a dragon. He told me that I was the first to see such a thing in this area in over a thousand years, and that the dragon was surely watching over me.
I believe him.
Soon after the skin was found, an altar was dedicated to the river dragon. It was built on the bank, close enough to the river that floodwaters occasionally touched its base. Indeed, after the first offering of incense was burned, the water rose to flood levels immediately, and a single shining blue scale was left at the base of the altar when the water receded. A sign, surely, that offerings here would be accepted.
I hope that they are accepted, because I burn incense at the dragon's altar daily. Though I know dragons are not gods, I can't help but feel as if this one were my patron deity.
Now, on the one-year anniversary of my entering the temple as a monk, I traveled to the bank as per my custom, in order to collect water and give the dragon an offering. I dipped the water jar into the river, filling it with water. Then, returning to the dragon's altar, I burned an extra stick of incense and left an offering of what little money I had. It was a modest offering, compared to other special-occasion gifts, but as the incense burned, I prayed that the dragon would understand and forgive.
Indeed, he must have, for at that moment, the river waters surged upward. A massive pillar of water filled the noonday sky, reaching from the riverbed next to the altar to the level of a cloud. I stared, awed and humbled by this display.
I wasn't sure what the pillar meant, but I was sure it was directed at me. I was in front of the shrine, praying for the desires of my heart, and asking for the dragon's blessing. What else could it be, but a response? Nonetheless, I was afraid. I bowed deeply, the water jar still in my hands.
Above me, a voice sounded, a scream of otherworldly tones that echoed through the river valley. I rose my head in surprise; I had never heard such a voice before. The pillar of water crashed down, leaving only stormclouds to fill the sky.
No, not only stormclouds. High above the riverbed, higher even than the water had reached, flew something shaped like a man, but purple-skinned and massive, nested in a thundercloud. In its hand writhed blue shape, pale and serpentine.
My river dragon.
Oh, heaven help me, all was lost. My dragon, my river, my guardian protector, gone! Stolen away by a raging god of thunder. Heaven help him.
Dazed, I placed one more stick of incense in the burner to seal the prayer to heaven and began to climb the slope to the temple. However, in my distracted state, the incline proved too much. I stumbled, dropping the jar, which lost its lid and rolled down the slope. I stayed where I was, and collapsed to the ground in tears. I had done nothing to help my dragon-- no, I was no longer worthy of calling him 'mine'. I hadn't helped the dragon, and yet I still took his water.
I don't know how long I stayed on the bank, but by the time I looked up, the sun had almost descended below the horizon, and darkness was beginning to descend. My breath ragged with lingering sobs, I stepped away from the slope and onto the bank to retrieve the fallen water jar. As I again dipped the jar in the river, I felt like a thief.
Replacing the lid, I once more began to climb the slope, this time never raising my gaze above the level of the ground. I watched the dirt, feeling a sort of kinship with it.
I had reached the top of the slope, and began to make my way toward the temple, when the stormclouds above began to rumble. A clap of thunder sounded, and a bright streak of lightning struck the ground in front of me, temporarily blinding me. When the light faded from my eyes, the purple god stood before me, arms folded and eyes glaring. I should have groveled before him, but I was paralyzed with fear. This was the one that took the dragon.
“I have need of your services, human,” the god rumbled, unfolding his hands. “You will bring your pot and come with me.”
It was a jar, not a pot, but I wasn't about to contradict. I nodded stiffly.
“So be it,” the god declared. He grabbed me around the waist and rose into the air. I refrained from calling out, but only barely. The ground fell away, and we shot into the sky. My grip on the jar tightened, and as the world I knew fell further away from me, the new world faded into black.
When I awoke, it was still black.
I was lying on my back, completely encased in some sort of porous stone, the water jar on the ground next to my head. It was a tight fit; whenever I shifted positions, I would rub against the stone walls. Its rough surface scraped at me whenever I touched it, sometimes even hard enough to draw blood. I groaned.
“Have you returned, Voltolos?” said a weary voice from below me. It was a rich alto voice that would have been beautiful, had it not been heavy with fatigue.
I started. Were there other people inside this rock? My thoughts were hazy. I wondered what the thunder god was trying to do. “I am just a monk,” I said.
The voice heaved a ragged sigh. “I see. Do you have magical power? Are you very spiritual?”
I tried to roll over, but only mostly succeeded. As I turned, the rocks gouged my skin, leaving cuts behind in many locations. My new position wasn't much better than the old; I was stuck on my side, bumping my head against the water jar. I hunched my neck, trying not to tip the jar over. I could now see through a few larger cracks in the stone; through one, above my head, came flickering orange light and the smell of smoke. Through the other, partially below me, showed a smooth blue form.
Oh, heaven! How could I not have realized? My river dragon!
“So, monk,” said the voice-- the dragon. It broke my heart to hear his beautiful voice so rough, so full of pain. “If you are not here to be eaten, what are you here for?”
“Eaten?” I asked, shocked. “What do you mean, 'eaten'?” I trembled a bit, earning myself more scrapes from the stone on all sides. I felt blood running down my arm.
“Voltolos intends to steal my magical power. To do this, he will kill me, drain my blood, and boil my corpse in it.” The dragon's voice was dry and flat, completely resigned to this gory fate. Outside the cracks, I saw the orange light flare up; now that I knew the purpose of the fire, I was no longer grateful for its light.
My arm twitched as the blood began to drip off my elbow. “Can you not stop him?” I asked. “I have seen your power...”
“I have no power.” The dragon spat out the last word as if it were a poison, a sharp, resentful edge coloring his rich voice. “Without my water, my river, I am nothing. My power runs dry.”
“...you are the dragon of the river at the base of this mountain?” I asked, hope tinging my voice.
The dragon was clearly wearied by my optimistic tone. “I am, but soon I will not be.”
I laughed quietly, a high-pitched, hysterical laugh. “Do not lose faith, o magnificent one,” I said, smiling. “Voltolos has made a mistake. I have brought your river with me.”
The dragon hissed, a sharp intake of breath. “Explain yourself!”
“I was drawing drinking water at your river, as I have every day for the past year, when Voltolos appeared and demanded that I come with him. I came here without putting the water down.” I paused. “Surely, Voltolos planned to use the water's vessel to boil you in. That is why he brought me here.”
“You have this pot with you, monk?” said the dragon, speaking quickly in his bewilderment and anticipation. “Pour its water on me, and you and I will escape this place.” The dragon was changing positions; I could hear his scales scraping against the rock walls.
It was a jar, not a pot, but I still wasn't about to contradict. “Yes,” I said.
I shimmied a bit, struggling to get my arms above my head to where I could grab the water jar. The rough rocks grabbed at my skin mercilessly, and I felt more rivulets of blood come to the surface. The wounds stung, as if the stone were laced with salt, but I ignored it. I had to do as the dragon commanded.
The jar in my grasp, I wiggled further into the tunnel. Now the rocks bit into all of my limbs, not just my arms, and I felt as if my whole body had been skinned. But, at last, I positioned the water jar on the edge of the hole above the dragon.
“It comes,” I said, and tipped the jar.
The rocks had wedged underneath my scales, prying them up. Unshed skin had been torn and was sticking out, making me feel ragged. And, worst of all, I was totally and completely dry.
I recognized the monk's voice; he was the one who spoke to me at the altar every day at noon. That was the only reason I trusted him when he announced that he was giving me water. I closed my eyes, and waited for its welcome touch.
It felt like an eternity passed before a cool drop struck my back. It spread across me, soothing my tormented form. Another drop fell, spreading the water even wider. I could scarce breathe for joy.
And then all of the monk's water came crashing down, completely covering me. I felt the water close all of my wounds and mend my skin and scales. My strength returned in full force, carrying with it greater magics than I had ever possessed before. With a great triumphant shout, I shattered the rocks and burst forth into the cool evening air.
Shards of stone and droplets of water fell to the ground noisily as the rock face crumbled away. Voltolos looked up from his cooking fire in shock.
So great was my power that I no longer slithered on the ground, but flew in the sky. I was larger, longer. I was aware of every molecule of water around me.
Behind me, the monk was climbing out of the mountain through the hole I had left. In front of me, Voltolos was swearing loudly and summoning stormclouds into existence around him. Static electricity crackled through the dark clouds.
I would not allow Voltolos to best me again. Calling upon my new abilities, I manipulated the water vapor in the air, sending a Twister of humid wind toward the storm god. Voltolos's clouds were reduced to tiny wisps of mist, and their electric charge dissipated.
Voltolos looked around him in shock, barely believing that his lightning had not struck. When he looked back at me, there was fear and anger in his eyes.
I kept my gaze focused firmly on Voltolos. “Monk,” I said quietly, my voice no longer strained, “come here, and we will leave this place. You will ride on my back to your temple.” I lowered my position in the air; the middle of my body was now only a few feet above the ground, where a human could reach to mount me.
A sort of strangled gasp came from the monk, and I could practically hear him struggling inwardly with the notion of touching a dragon. I was amused, but didn't let it show. I kept my expression stern, and I did not look away from Voltolos. He could not be allowed to make another move.
After a moment, the monk approached me awkwardly. His hand lightly touched my smooth scales for a few seconds before he stiffly climbed to a seated position on my back.
I had forgotten; the monk had also been encased in stone, and must also have been injured there. He had no scales to protect his soft flesh, and he had not been healed as I had. Poor man. His hands were wet with sweat and blood.
As soon as the monk took his position and had his arms wrapped tightly around me, I surged forward in flight. Voltolos watched as I left, but made no move to follow. I was grateful; however, I doubted that he would forgive my escape.
Though we were actually losing altitude as I returned to the river valley, the monk's grip tightened and he held himself close to me as we moved away from the mountain. I could feel his quickened heartbeat even through my scales. I tried to straighten my twisting flight path; I did not want to cause him any more discomfort than necessary.
After all, if it weren't for him, I would have been eaten.
By the time the dragon reached the temple grounds, the sun was rising, and I was almost used to flight. However, I very much doubted that the shock of having actually touched the dragon would ever wear off.
I slid stiffly off of the dragon's back, at last returning to the temple's holy ground. The dragon settled on the ground and coiled itself like a snake, staring at me expectantly. I didn't know what he wanted.
For lack of a better idea, I bowed, ignoring the protests from my many scrapes and gouges. “Thank you, magnificent one,” I said formally. “I am forever in your debt.”
The dragon laughed, a sound so otherworldly I almost shivered. “What do you mean, in my debt?” he said. “It was you who saved my life. All I did was bring you home. The debt is mine.” The dragon's pale blue frame was larger than I thought it was, somehow more imposing and more majestic at the same time. This creature was many times as large as the skin I had found.
“You cannot mean that. We of the temple have always been your servants; you owe us nothing.” Nonetheless, I stopped bowing.
“Do not lie to me, monk. I value my life as much as any human does; your service was key in my retaining possession of it. Never bow before me again, for now I speak to you as an equal.”
I couldn't breathe. Surely, he was joking.
“Now,” the dragon continued, “let me see this temple of yours. I have something to say to the man in charge here.”
I moved to open the door for the dragon, but realized halfway through the motion that he would not fit through the door in his new, incredible form. Instead, I said, “I will bring the head monk to you, great one.”
The dragon rolled his eyes. “Titles are not necessary, o persistent one. And I will do as I said, and see your temple for myself.” The dragon uncoiled, and began to slide toward the temple doors.
The dragon's form began to shimmer, and the edges faded away into the dawn light. Soon, the entirety of his serpentine body vanished, leaving behind a human figure. He continued unfazed toward the building.
No, she did. Oh, heaven.
The dragon's human form was that of a richly clothed woman, no older than myself. Her beautiful face was framed by straight white hair, that despite its color gave no impression of old age. She was tall, slender, and clothed in robes of blue that were intricately embroidered with silver thread and sapphire gemstones. Her appearance matched her voice-- ethereal and beautiful.
I felt my cheeks color, and I looked at the ground as I walked behind her to the temple. She walked in as if she had visited every day of her life, and stopped in the middle of the entrance hall. “Hello?” she called. Now that I had seen her, it seemed obvious that that smooth alto voice belonged to a woman.
There were footsteps in the hallway, and the head monk emerged. He seemed startled that there were any visitors to our humble establishment. The sight of his guest did nothing to calm him.
“Welcome, my lady,” he said, bowing. “You wished to speak with me?”
“Yes,” the woman said. “I am Haraegawa no Ryou, dragon of your river. I would like to have access to this temple whenever I might wish to visit. Is this acceptable?”
The head monk stared at her, bewildered. The dragon, looking like that, inside of his temple? Clearly, the notion of actually speaking to the river dragon was almost beyond his perception. I couldn't help but smile. Earlier today, I had felt the same way.
“I-if you would like to grace us with your presence, we would be honored,” he managed. “You may come and go as you please.”
Ryou smiled, and I once more had to look at the ground while my face turned red. Her smile was exquisite. I was suddenly grateful that all of the other monks were old.
Ryou spoke again; this time, her voice was serious. “Also, I have something to add that is not a request. This one--” she gestured to me with one elegant hand-- “is mine. Treat him well.”
Hers? Oh, heavens.
Ryou turned on her heels and strode from the temple, and the head priest watched her go in astonishment. As soon as she was out of earshot, he turned to me. “What did you do, boy?” he demanded.
I realized that I was still wearing torn clothes and covered in dried blood. I smiled sheepishly. “I drew some water at the river.”
The old man raised an eyebrow.
“Alright, it was a little more than that.”
Within a month, news had made it across the province that a monk by the river had tamed a dragon. I was disappointed that people would think me so easily tamed, as it were, but I never corrected anyone.
Somehow, I had gained a place in human society. I started to wear less extravagant clothes, and a scarf to hide my hair; I had noticed that if I looked more common, people would talk to me more readily. After I began to regularly visit the temple, and occasionally even attend worship services, the monks there began to familiarize themselves with me. Eventually, their formality became less stiff, and I began to feel as welcome as the head priest assured me I was.
Of course, familiarity was never a problem with my monk. After I called him mine, that very first day, he seemed to relax whenever I was around. I'm not sure why he did it, but I enjoyed it.
There was one occasion when he asked me why I called him 'my monk'. I told him that for the longest time, he had called me 'my dragon', so I thought it fitting revenge. Really, though, it was just because I hadn't thought to learn his name until he asked why I wasn't using it. I didn't ask him what it was; I didn't want him to know of my carelessness.
I might have a place in society, but I am surely not a passable human.
People began to flood to the little temple to see the legendary dragon-taming monk, but most of them left after staying for one worship service. The few who actually asked to see the dragon were usually rewarded with an introduction to me; for those occasions, I wore my extravagant clothing. The handful that I liked got to see me in true form when I returned to my river in the evenings.
But, despite all the fascination with me, no one seemed to care about the temple, the monks, or even my monk. They came, burned our incense, and left. And yet, the stories about us still circulated.
In time, the dry season arrived, and the ancient man who served as head monk passed on. The funeral service was small and simple, but I think he would have liked it that way. I occasionally left offerings at his grave. I had liked him. He took his job seriously, but still found the time to find joy in life.
My monk was chosen as the head monk's successor, even though he was certainly not the most senior. Those who normally would have been eligible for the position joked about how, this way, they wouldn't have to choose a new head monk every time one of 'us old folks' passed. I didn't like the conversation; it made me realize how all of these humans, even my monk, would be dead and gone in a century and I would be alone again.
Whenever I thought about those things in human form, my chest would tighten and I would have trouble speaking. I did not like it.
“Good morning, Ryou,” I said when I heard the river waters rise and break behind me. Even now, I burned incense at Ryou's altar every morning. I think it helped her wake up; these days, she tended to emerge immediately after I lit the incense.
“To you too, my monk,” she replied. Her full dragon form slid from the water and onto the bank, and she stretched herself in a wide backwards arc, her blue scales glinting faintly in the sun. Somehow, those scales seemed less lustrous as of late.
I didn't get a chance to examine them very closely, though, for at the peak of her stretch, her draconian form disintegrated. I was left looking upward at where she had been while the beautiful woman walked to my side. I lowered my gaze to eye level. Though Ryou tried to hide her magnificence behind peasant's clothing, I still saw her for what she was.
We walked up the hill to the temple together.
The morning was routine-- I conducted a worship service, while Ryou participated as part of the tiny congregation. Even with the vastly increased quantity of pilgrimages here, we still never had many people at a time. After the service, we completed all of the daily chores. I tried to do most of them, but Ryou still insisted on doing something. Mostly, I had her fetch the water. I think it amused her.
It wasn't until midday that anything out of the ordinary happened. There was a commotion outside the building; I heard the sounds of hooves and whinnies. It wasn't often we had visitors wealthy enough to come on horseback, so I decided to offer them whatever hospitality I could and greet them in person. I was going outside to speak to them when one of the old monks came hastily toward me. “Outside, there are four riders,” he said, “and they bear the governor's standard. They demand to speak with you, as the dragon tamer.”
I raised my eyebrows. The governor? Impressive.
I headed outside, and Ryou followed me. However, before exiting the building, I stopped. “Go back inside,” I told her. “If they want to speak with the dragon tamer, they'll be suspicious of anyone who comes out with me.” Word of Ryou's human disguises had been spreading lately.
“What do I have to fear from humans?” she grumbled, but she listened to me and retreated. I sighed in relief; it wasn't often that I could convince her to act in her own interest, and I was sure that these people would not be kind to her if they saw her.
As soon as I laid eyes on the visitors, my suspicions about their motives increased. The governor's party of messengers rode impressive Rapidash stallions, clearly chosen to intimidate. All four of the men were armored, and most carried weapons; the one who appeared to be in charge had two swords at his waist. I was more inclined to believe them soldiers than messengers.
I bowed formally to the party. “You asked for me?”
The rider in charge did not dismount.“You're the one who tamed that dragon beast?” he demanded, speaking far louder than necessary.
No, I thought, I am the one who first realized that a dragon is not just a beast. “Yes,” I said.
“You'll speak with me.” The rider dismounted and strode into the temple, swords clanking. The other riders made no move to follow. I did, out of duty, and hoped that Ryou wouldn't decide that she wanted to listen in.
The governor's man struck a random course through the temple, only stopping when I pointedly entered a side room and showed no signs of following him. He shoved past me and sat on the floor, legs crossed and eyes glaring at me. I knelt in an excessively formal fashion. “Your concern, sir?” I prompted.
The soldier spat on the floor, and it took all of my self-control to keep myself from cleaning it up and humbly requesting that he leave this holy ground and take his foul manners and 'dragon beast' rubbish with him.
“The entire province is in a drought, or hadn't ya heard,” the soldier said, picking his nose. I felt myself twitch before I could stop it; the soldier didn't notice. He continued, “The governor says that, with your pet dragon, ya can call down rain whenever you wanna.”
“...I see,” I said, and I did. He wanted me to use Ryou like a tool. “I'll consider your request,” I said, and I didn't. I understood that there was a drought, and I even admitted that I avoided most of the consequences by living by a dragon's river, but I couldn't pretend that I had the ability to change the course of nature. I gave water to all who came to the temple, and let them take as much as they could carry when they left. I had no power to do anything more.
And, though I hadn't voiced it to her, I doubted that even Ryou had the power to call down enough rain to end a drought. I had seen her weaken as the drought came-- I saw her spend more time as a human; I saw her use less magic; I saw her very scales start to lose their shine. She could do nothing more than I.
Using more false assurances, I managed to get the soldier out of the door, though not off of temple grounds.
My monk was distant after that meeting. Whenever I tried to ask him about what happened with the governor's men, he changed the subject. I should have been annoyed with him, but the troubled expression he wore when he thought I wasn't watching persuaded me to let him be.
I waited until we were on the riverbank again, at sundown, to speak to him. The bank was the only place we could truly be alone, and it only happened twice a day. It didn't seem like enough for either of us, sometimes. Now, though, it didn't seem like he wanted to be here.
“What happened today?” I asked, standing with my feet in the water. I faced my monk as I spoke, but he looked at the ground.
“It was nothing,” he said. He was lying. “Good night.”
I blinked a few times. “...good night,” I said, and walked into the water. I didn't change anything about my form until I was on the very bottom of the river, completely immersed. And, at that point, all I did was change lungs to gills.
I needed to conserve my energy for what I planned to do tomorrow.
“What did your pet dragon say, boy? Is it ready to give us some rain?” the soldier demanded, back in the side room in the temple. “Or am I gonna have to do somethin' bad to ya?”
I stared at a tiny lizard on the wall behind the soldier instead of looking at him. “The dragon's dominion is over rivers and lakes-- standing water, not the weather. She can’t do anything to change the drought. The best service I can offer is to pray to the god of the storm to send rain.”
Not that that would work, either. Voltolos wasn't terribly fond of me.
The soldier slammed his fist into the ground and raised his voice. “You think just prayin' is gonna do anything? I've got every monk in the stinkin' province prayin', and not a single drop o' rain has come!” He stood up and began pacing agitatedly.
I was startled by the sudden release of aggression, but I tried not to show it. “As monks, we do everything in our power to--”
“You think I give a flyin' fart what's in your power?” the soldier shouted. He stepped toward me and drew one of his swords. “You're gonna have that piece of crap dragon of yours make some rain, and you're gonna do it now. You got it?” He pointed the tip of the sword at my throat. On the wall behind him, the lizard hissed.
I didn't move; I couldn't, with a blade there. “I understand,” I whispered.
The soldier spat on the floor, sheathed his sword, and stormed from the room. I sat still, doing nothing for a long time. The lizard scurried down the wall, and watched me from the corner of the room.
Eventually, I shifted out of my formal position. I spoke into the silence, my voice thick with frustration. “There's nothing I can do. Nothing we can do. And Ryou's worried. Aah, I wish I could comply with the governor's demands and be done with the whole thing.”
“Why would you want to satisfy a man who sends a thug to threaten you?” said an alto voice.
I leapt to my feet, and looked around the room in disbelief. “Ryou?”
“I've been watching you this whole time. I watched that hideous man come at you with a blade.” The lizard in the corner hissed again. Then it stood on its hind legs and became a woman.
I sighed. I had thought I would recognize Ryou, no matter what form she took, but apparently I was wrong. Or maybe I was just stressed. “So you understand the situation.”
“It was as I expected.”
“They're demanding things that we can't do. We can't control the clouds.”
“Yes. The clouds are under Voltolos' control.” She paused. “I believe it is because of us that no rain has fallen. He has not forgiven us for escaping and denying him a dragon's powers.”
“But how do we appease him? If rain doesn't fall soon, innocent people will start dying of thirst.”
“I will speak to him.”
I started. “No! If he sees you again, he'll kill you.” My voice cracked.
“And if I do nothing, drought will eventually kill you, along with those innocent people. You saved me once; it is time to return the favor.” Her voice was calm, and I could read no emotion on her face. It was strange, seeing her so distant. It made me afraid.
“You can't go,” I said quietly. “You just can't. Don't leave.” I hung my head.
“I must,” Ryou said. She came close to me, and lightly touched my arm. I wanted to shy away, but I couldn't. Not from her.
She continued. “It is for your sake that I do this. That your conscience can be clean, and that you may live on, my monk. Sôen.”
My breath caught in my throat, and I raised my head to look in her eyes. She had said my name.
I wanted to apologize to her, to thank her, to tell her how amazing she was. I couldn't find the words. So I kissed her.
When I pulled away, we both had tears on our cheeks. I had never seen her cry before.
“Live on,” she whispered, smiling through her tears. Then she was gone.
As I approached Voltolos's mountain, the skies darkened with stormclouds. He knew I was coming.
Mighty winds battered me as I got closer, and lightning started to strike. Voltolos came into view only halfway up the mountain. This was not like the peak; it was the borderline between the thriving valley and the barren stone. Durable plants still grew, and the beginnings of my river cascaded down the mountain's side.
“Welcome back,” Voltolos said, glaring at me with his arms folded over his chest. “I was rather put out when you left, last time.”
“I'm sorry,” I said sweetly. “But some things came up. Being boiled didn't fit very well in my schedule.” My serpentine body twisted in the driving wind. Annoying.
“Oh, that's quite understandable.” He snarled, revealing a row of pointed teeth. I wondered how I could ever have thought that this bestial thing looked like a human.
“You see, dragon,” he continued, “I've found a new thing to desire. Your powers are of no consequence to me now.”
My eyes narrowed. “If I am beneath your concern, why do you keep the rain from the valley?”
“To smoke out my new objective.” Voltolos's ogreish face broke into a demented grin. “Now, I want your head, dragon. You humiliated me, and I will not forgive that. I don't need your power anymore; besides, it's not as exclusive to you as you seem to believe.”
Below us, my river burst from its banks and rose into the sky, by no command of mine. I felt like someone else had control over my body, and I was being forced to move against my will. The stolen water evaporated and became part of the stormclouds. Thunder rumbled menacingly.
I hissed. He must have found some other unfortunate dragon to cook. I was at a bigger disadvantage than I had expected.
The thunder god chuckled. “Come now, dragon. Defend this river of yours. Or I will take it.”
I tried to pull my water to me, but Voltolos also had a strong hold on it. Though the water thrashed like a living thing, the Surf did not leave its banks. I called on the water in the clouds; they responded by shocking me with their lightning.
Between the lightning and the invasion into my river, I felt like I was being torn apart.
“Curse you,” I muttered, struggling to hold my position in the air. Lightning struck through me again, and I dropped, spinning in the wind as I fell. A few meters above the surface of my raging river, I regained control and stopped my descent. My breathing was heavy, and my movements were sluggish. There were too many forces working against me.
“I admire your resistance,” Voltolos said from above me, “but you're quickly losing your charm, even as entertainment. Begone.”
Suddenly, Voltolos stopped holding the river waters down, and they shot into the air as I had bid them do. I was immersed in them.
A massive bolt of lightning struck the pillar of water, and me with it. Thunder swallowed up the sound of Voltolos’s laughter, and the world went dark.
With my last coherent thought, I prayed for my monk.
It rained nonstop for the next three days. The soldiers left, satisfied. Ryou did not return.
On the fourth day, the ground was wet and fertile. However, the river was gone, save for a trickle of dirty water. The bank was littered with shredded dragonskin.
The incense I lit for Ryou would not burn.