Author's Note:

Sorry about the delay; I'm back in school, and that means work, work, Economic History Thesis, work, Theoretical Math, work, work, and then, maybe, some fiction writing. Until I tell you otherwise, updates from now on will, unfortunately, be nowhere near regular. I'll try to keep them coming as often as possible, but no promises. I can tell you that they will be definitely worth the wait, though.

Pronunciations:

1) Goznem = [GOZ-nem]

2) Samirol = [SAHM-ih-roll]

And, just to let you know, the plot is going to get zippy in about two or three chapters. Things to look forward to: the Rebellion, executions, secret police, dragon-training sessions (practice combat and magic sessions, included), war, and, a love interest for Zach (but is she human, or is she a dragon... hmm?).


Chapter 5: Growing Pains

For the third time in a row, Zachary Taylor awoke to a nasty surprise: his whole body ached. It felt like someone had placed hundreds and thousands of toothpicks between his muscles and his scaly hide. Zach's bones felt like they were trying to push their way out of him. His insides tingled and buzzed; the sensation didn't pulse or throb like normal pain, like when you stubbed a toe—no, the pain seemed glued in place in side of him, trying, and failing to get free.

«Aaah! Why… why do I hurt?!» In his discomfort, Zach growled loudly, matching his telepathic voice's almost-screaming tone. The dragon was surprised that his vocalizations sounded deeper and stronger than before. Zach had meant to roar, but it hadn't come out the way that he had intended; a muzzle, wrapped around his snout prevented him from opening his mouth. He couldn't see it, but he could feel it pressing against his mouth, nose, and jaws; it somehow made the tingling pain feel even worse.

"It will pass soon enough," a young man said; somehow, Zach knew that it was Jaynem. "The first Growth Spurt is always the most painful for a young dragon—or so Samirol tells me."

«Growth… Growth Spurt?» Zach asked, opening his eyes. He was in his stall-cell, in more-or-less the same position as when he fell asleep. The bars were still in place, blocking the entrance, and, as Zach already knew—and now, as he could see—he had company.

{Jaynem,} he thought, as he gazed at the Prince. Zach didn't notice that he was now at eye-level with Jaynem.

The Crown Prince was wearing a completely new set of clothing, a perfect duplicates of the outfit that Zach's frenzied scampering had completely ruined the day before.

"Normally," the Prince said, "if you hadn't been specially 'enhanced' to serve me in a greater capacity, this wouldn't require any explanation. You wouldn't have been able to understand it, even if you wanted to."

Jaynem glared at his dragon, pursing his lips in displeased silence; his sleek brow furrowed. Suddenly, Zach was filled with a horrible mental sensation: a tone ran amok inside his head, sounding harsh, shrill and relentless, scraping and squelching against his nerves like the screams of an un-oiled hinge, boiling away in a vat of sticky acid. It flowed over his mind, all gooey-like, in slow, ceaseless agony. The sensation congealed deep inside his brain's crevices, like it would never let go. It dwarfed the pain that he had felt upon awakening. Zach's body seized and spasmed in its futile attempts to escape the pain.

After several minutes that seemed like several years, Zach felt blessed silence return as his mind regained its sacred privacy. Simultaneously—strange is it might seem—Zach could feel traces of mental exhaustion—not from, or in, himself, but from Jaynem. Zach was somehow aware of the mental drain that his torture had required from Jaynem. His eyelids twitched, and his neck trembled a little, as the new pain faded, only to be replaced by the pain that had woken him.

"That was for the clothes you destroyed yesterday, and for the humiliation your actions caused me. I sincerely hope that, in the future, you will behave properly. You would do well to follow my orders, from now on," Jaynem said, without a trace of emotion.

{M-magic… it's gotta be magic…} Zach thought gingerly, being careful not to over-do it. Even the sound of his own thoughts caused him pain now, making him wince in discomfort, as if his mind was 'sore'—obviously, an after-effect of whatever Jaynem had just done to him.

"Now, as to your question," he continued, "the royal wizards cast a spell on you while you slept, forcing your body to age, and grow. Your body is about a year older."

"Happy birthday, Goznem," Jaynem added, with a sneer, using the name that he had decided upon for his dragon—however, Zach didn't immediately recognize it as such. Once again, the young dragon was too busy fretting over his body's most recent changes to notice what was happening around him.

Though there was a part of him that wasn't inclined to trust anything that came out of Jaynem's mouth. Indeed, at first, Zach thought that his mind—well, his eyes—was just playing tricks on him. But, like before, Zach couldn't deny the physical sensations—even if the were still muted by the fading fog of his pains. The sound of his breathing was too deep, and his head, neck, and limbs felt too large—his wings, most of all. There was no doubt about it: he had grown—and substantially. At the very least, Zach guessed that he was now twice as big as he'd been the day before. It sure felt that way; he was probably six, or seven feet long, now—and half of it was just his tail!

Zach briefly pondered how large he was going to get. He hadn't actually seen Gazann, so he still had no idea what a grown dragon looked like. For some reason, thinking about that older dragon's name caused something to click in Zach's mind; a sound Zach had heard a few moments before finally wormed its way into his awareness.

«Goznem?» he asked.

Zach's mental voice was labored and lethargic. It was hard to speak; he still felt drained by the dull throb of his growth-pangs, and, by the ace of his still-sore mind. Luckily, this enervation kept Zach from 'speaking' too assertively; if it hadn't, the strength of his dismay would have certainly grated Jaynem giving him the perfect excuse to unleash more torture.

"Yes," Jaynem said, nodding approvingly—but without a smile. "You should be proud to bear it. Few can say that their name was given to them by a Doushani—let alone the Prince."

«My name is… Zach… n-not Goznem,» Zach replied. Mental panting broke up his telepathy, matching the deep, unsteady breaths of his stressed lungs.

{What? Dragon hatchlings don't give themselves their names, let alone such a strange one!} Jaynem thought, somewhat confused—but he didn't show it.

"I do not know where, or how, you received that name, but, it doesn't really matter: Goznem is your name, now. It is superior to… Zach." Jaynem said, pronouncing the name "Zach" like it rhymed with the word "Sock."

Jaynem's words angered Zach; he had already lost his body, now they wanted to take his name, too?

{No way in hell,} Zach thought.

«My nameis Zach, Jaynem,» he said, with more strength than before.

"You are my dragon; 'Zack' is not a dragon's name. You should know that I do not take kindly to contrarians," the Prince said.

«It isn't a dragon's name because I'm not a dragon… least of all yours. I'm a human being: I have my rights!»

Jaynem narrowed his eyes once more.

{I have had enough of this insulting foolishness,} Jaynem thought. He refused to condone foolishness in any of his subjects. His dragon was obviously deranged—but that was no excuse to behave in such a manner. It needed to be taught a lesson. And so, focusing on his side of the Link once more, the Prince thought of pain; he forced an excruciating sound into Zach's mind for a second time.

The instant Zach saw Jaynem begin concentrating, his breath fell into his stomach.

{Oh shi—} he started think—but Zach didn't have the time to finish his thought.

Years of training in preparation for the day of his Linking had steeled Jaynem's mental faculties; with that training, abusing the Link—as he was now doing—was a simple matter. And Zach fared no better than he had before. He lacked both the concentration, and the skill, needed to resist Jaynem's will; the sound and the pain surged back into him with ease. And so, once again the cold fingers of Jaynem's will ripped open the doors of Zach's mind.

«AAAGH!» Zach felt like a rabid lightning bolt was trying to chisel its way into—or maybe out of—his skull. His arms and legs buckled like jelly; his wings twitched, trying to fling away the inalienable agony.

"No, Goznem," Jaynem said, with an almost hypnotic intensity, "you are a dragon—my dragon."

A wave of pain rushed over Zach as Jaynem pumped more effort into his tortures; the pain rose to a climax.

«Why… w-why are you… doing th-this… to mm-me?!» Zach's screams spasmed just like his body. Jaynem held his concentration for as long as he could; he wanted to make his point.

"Because, Goznem, I do not tolerate disobedience. Not from you, or anyone else," Jaynem said.

Suddenly, the sound and the pain went into full retreat, receding back out of Zach's senses. The pain quickly died down to nothing, leaving but a wisp of exhaustion behind in its wake—Jaynem's exhaustion.

"If you were anything other than my dragon, Goznem, I would not hesitate to kill you for your disobedience," the Prince said.

Zach could hear Jaynem's breathing deepen. Even through his own daze, Zach could tell that Jaynem had overexerted himself in these two torture-sessions; he had gone overboard with the pain-sound, just so that he could make his point, and satisfy his wounded ego.

«I'm Zach, and I'm human… like you,» Zach said, firmly, but calmly. Even if it seemed like Jaynem didn't have the energy to torture him again, Zach didn't want to have to test that theory anytime soon.

For just a moment, Jaynem let loose the tiniest inkling of an uncomfortable, ironic smile—but, he stifled it, before Zach could even notice.

"You are persistent," he said.

Zach braced himself for more pain, only to be met with words, instead of torture.

"Consider this," Jaynem said. "You have scales, a tail, claws, horns, fangs a snout, and wings. You are a wingèd lizard. Since when has that qualified as being human?" Jaynem frowned slightly. He didn't like the idea of having to debate with anyone. As the Crown Prince, his words were law; only the decrees issued by his father bore more weight.

{But, I suppose that I deserve this indignity,} he thought. {I allowed my emotions to get the better of me. I wasted power. This will not happen again; it is weakness and I will not stand f—}

«That's not what I mean,» Zach said, interrupting Jaynem's thoughts. Zach growled quietly—just below the limits of Jaynem's perception. The vibrations rumbled in his throat. Instinctively—as a means of releasing his anger—Zach slowly scraped his claws against the hay-covered floor of his cell. To Zach's surprise however, they didn't seem to make proper contact with the stone below; worse, he cringed at the shrill sound of scraping metal. A quick glance at his paws confirmed what he felt. The tips of his claws were covered with blunt metal caps—like thimbles that he couldn't remove.

{At this rate, they'll probably clip my wings, too,} Zach thought, bitterly. He growled; Jaynem could hear him, this time.

"There is little else that you can mean, Goznem," Jaynem said. "You either are a dragon, or you are not; there is no middle ground with this sort of matter."

Zach narrowed his eyes, growling at the Prince's words—and louder than before.

"I do not argue with hatchlings," Jaynem said, with his Zach little brand humorless humor.

While Zach was trying to think up his rebuttal, his ears twitched—they picked up a noise. He heard approaching footsteps echoing from the nearby corridor. Even though the right wall of his stall prevented him from seeing it, Zach turned his head toward the source of the sound, anyway.

"Prince J—" A nasally-voiced man said, cutting himself off in his surprise. "—Your Highness! I… I did not expect to see you here so soon."

"To arrive on time is to arrive too late, Samirol," Jaynem said, as he turned around to face the new arrival—and, just as the arrival moved close enough to come into Zach's view.

"Am I late—in the common sense—your Highness?" Samirol, said, with all the charm of an anxious onion; the starkest of contrasts, compared to sultry ice of Jaynem's voice. Though Samirol knew that the Prince was always early, he worried that he was actually late—by normal, human standards.

"No… I suppose not," Jaynem said, answering Samirol's question.

«Who is that?» Zach asked; «Who are you?» he asked again, this time, addressing the person who might actually answer him.

The newcomer was a tall and slender man, with a cultured air about him—one that befitted his rank: Royal Dragon Master of the Doushani Dominion, the (current) preëminent authority on dragon-kind in all Gherahjia. He wore a large hat—green, and wide-brimmed—atop his bald, oil-polished skull. His face was nearly as gaunt as his figure—with a large, noble-looking nose, sunken—slightly wrinkled—cheeks, bristling sideburns, and a dangling goatee; his facial hair, a standard shade of brown. His had black tights for pants, accompanied by a frilly thing that went around his waist. It reminded Zach of an overstretched accordion, hanging there, beneath the ornate, orange tightness of the man's vest, and the ghost-white undershirt that came up in the middle. The shirt collared around his neck in a silly-looking fan of lace. His vest had short coattails; they stuck out from behind him like the tail of a sea-bird, perfectly matching the awkward bumblings of his long, bony legs.

Hearing the young dragon's question made Samirol froze for an instant. He looked to the Prince for guidance.

Jaynem frowned and shook his head; his chest moved a little as he did so, letting off a glimmer as the badges, pins and medallions—all precious metals and gems—shone in the light filtering down from the window-slits, high up in the rafters.

"Come with me, we have things to discuss," the Prince said, motioning to Samirol as he moved toward the Stable's entrance—right where the Dragon Master had come through, just a minute before. It didn't matter that Zach would be able to still her them; Jaynem just wanted to be out of his dragon's sight, that's all.

«Hey! Where are you two going?» Zach asked, he skit over to the front of his stall, and—rearing himself up on his hind legs—resting his fore-paws on one of the horizontal bars. Zach eyed Jaynem intently as Samirol and the Prince walked out of sight.

"Ignore him," Jaynem said, not bothering to turn to look Samirol in the eye as he addressed him. It was disturbing how his dragon seemed to know exactly how to wear his patience down to the bone.

«Ignore me? After all that!?» Zach screeched, telepathically. Jaynem had added insult to injury to insult and back again, far too many times to count. «Come back here!» The dragon banged his paws against the bars of his stall, making quite a ruckus.

Samirol followed suit and obeyed Jaynem's commands; he didn't say a word in response to anything that Zach said or did—not until the Prince stopped walking and turned to face him.

"Y-your Majesty?" Samirol asked, at last—nervously raising his right hand to his mouth.

The Prince took a deep breath before responding to the anxious stick of a man who stood behind him. "Fix this damned mess, Samirol. Fix it now—or I'll have your head on a platter," he said, with barely subdued anger.

"My… my liege," the Dragon master stuttered, "you—you need not worry about your dragon."

Though the Prince did not ease his scowl, he did raise an eyebrow in curiosity.

"How so?" he asked.

"I have dealt with this disorder several times before, although—I must admit—never to such a degree as this," Samirol said. "On rare occasions, a hatchling can be overwhelmed by the psychic connections created by the Link. In circumstances like this—where the dragon is Linked to a powerful mind, such as your own, your Highness—the dragon may be confused into thinking that its mind, and the mind it is Linked to, are, in fact, one and the same. In essence, the dragon believes that it is its human partner. "

«Wait, what?» Zach asked, not believing his highly-sensitive dragon's hearing abilities.

"Samirol: it doesn't think that it is me," Jaynem said, with renewed irritation, "it thinks that it is an independent human in its own right."

«That's because I am one!» Zach insisted.

"That Goznem's case is severe enough to make him believe that he is human—and, furthermore, a human distinct from yourself, your Highness—is perfectly understandable," Samirol said, easily ignoring the dragon's fussy quips. "I am absolutely certain that this is but an unforeseen side-effect of the blood incantations cast on Goznem's egg during his incubation."

"Then what is to be done with it?" the Jaynem demanded.

«I'm not an it!» Zach screamed, indignant.

Fed up with his lizard's demeaning displays, Jaynem focused his will one more time. Wielding the Link like a whip, Jaynem lashed out one last blow at Zach's mind.

The pain flared up in Zach once more, sending the dragon falling to the ground, back-first—stunned. Thankfully, Jaynem's enervated state kept the pain from lasting too long; it snuffed out almost as quickly as it appeared.

Shaking his head—clearing his senses—Zach got himself right-side up with a well-timed sit-up—after two or three failed attempts, of course. He wasn't very good at sit-ups. Despite his penchant for the occasional rebellious streak, Zach knew when he was beat. He lay down on his belly once more—that surprisingly comfortable, natural felling pose. For now, he decided that it would be best—and safest—just to listen.

"You were saying, Samirol?" Jaynem asked, gladdened by the mental sense of his dragon's submission. The Link allowed him to feel his dragon's emotions; that was one of the reasons, no doubt, why dealing with it was so damned infuriating.

"Ah… well," Samirol said, "first, I… I suggest we humor him, your Highness—at least, for the time being. Call Goznem 'Zach,' or whatever else he wishes to be called. Let the dragon sort out the incompatibility between reality and his delusions on his own."

"What?" Jaynem asked.

"Goznem's—Zach's confusion is due to interactions between your strong will, and its undeveloped one. Given enough time—a few weeks, maybe a month at most—Zach's mind will eventually reach a state of development where his personality and intelligence will make his delusion unsustainable. He can only believe this delusion while his mind remains incapable of deducing the truth on its own. By humoring him, you will deny his psychosis the opportunity to assert itself through protest. That way, as Zach's mind matures, and comes into its own, his misconceptions will be pushed into the background."

The Prince did not seem to react, positively or negatively, to the Dragon Master's advice; his composure was quiet, filled with begrudging acceptance.

"Second, I… um suggest that… we move him to… into the… um… Military Stalls." Samirol spoke his words tremulously, and with uncharacteristic prudence. He tried to present this second suggestion as harmlessly and gently as possible, knowing how much the Doushanis—and the Crown Prince most of all—loathed associating with anyone beneath their own, impossibly high rank. Yet, in spite of the precautions, Samirol's words still managed stung Jaynem like a red-hot poker in the belly.

"I will allow no such thing!" the Prince roared, spitting out the words like drops of venom. Jaynem tensed his hands into fists; he brought an arm up near his chest. His face contorted with revulsion at the very idea of having his dragon lodged with the military's dragons. It didn't matter that they were all high-ranking officers, and/or the sons and daughters of the nobility; compared to a Doushani such as himself, they were about as relevant as a dead ant. To have his dragon among theirs would mean having to train with them, as well. It was difficult for Jaynem to come up with a more nightmarish scenario than that—save for the victory of the Rebellion, or the fall of the Dominion.

"What do you take me for, an ordinary nobleman? In case you have forgotten, my dear Samirol: my dragon—Zach, as you insist that I call him—he is the most powerful dragon ever born in Gherahjia. Fitting, considering that it is my destiny to become the greatest ruler that Gherahjia has ever seen. But, I cannot achieve this destiny unless my dragon is up to par! Its will must be one with my own; its resolve must be as absolute as my own. I will not allow my Link to be weighed down by weakness! Do you hear that, Samirol? Does your stuffy little mind understand it?"

"Yes, your Highness! Yes, yes—a thousand times yes!" Samirol said, yelling, quivering, in terror; shaking his hands, desperate to regain favor with his sovereign. His eyes and tremulous brows opened wide with fear.

The Prince waited for a moment before continuing. "Good," Jaynem's voice was calm and cool once more, with no traces of anger or vehemence; Samirol was terrified all the more, because of it. The Dragon Master removed his green hat and, with both hands, held it close against his chest.

"Y-yes…" Samirol said, choking on the thickness of his own, dry saliva. "Please, please, your majesty… I," he dropped to his knees, "I have only the… the interests—the best interests—of the Dominion at heart. I would not propose such a… such a radical solution if there was any other way. But… time is of the essence, my lord."

"Hmm?" Jaynem asked. Fate had smiled on Samirol: the Prince was intrigued.

"Your dragon," the Dragon Master began, choosing his words carefully—very carefully—"…even now, I can already sense his extraordinary potential. And… given how far his faculties have already developed—given all the power signatures that were present during his incubation—if his development continues at this rate, then…"

"Yes?" the Prince crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow.

"You know of what Gazann's power was like, prior to—"

"—my father's untimely invalidity, yes I know," Jaynem grumbled; he didn't like being reminded that Feljann was still the ruler of the Dominion, even in his current, comatose state.

"Well," Samirol said, "if he continues at this rate, within a fortnight, Zach will be even stronger than Gazann was—and that's without taking the power of your Link into account."

Though it barely showed, Jaynem was stunned—flabbergasted. Yes, he knew that his dragon was supremely powerful, but, to reach that level of power so quickly, it… it was ludicrous!

"Y-You're joking," the Prince said, his tongue tripping for the first time since he had learned to speak. "Even with the wizards forcing Growth Spurts, it took years for Gazann to reach his full potential."

"I would not say it if it were anything less than the truth, my liege. You must understand: unless Zach's delusions are remedied immediately—unless he accepts the purpose of his existence—then, I have little doubt that he will soon become too powerful for anyone to control. Not even you would be able to stop him. That is why it is imperative that we place him—that we submerge him, amongst his own kind. Not simply other dragons, but other hatchlings like him. That will allow—this will force Zach to dispense with his delusions, and conform to his purpose as an… an instrument of your might, your Highness."

"You speak of him as if he is a wayward child, unwilling to perform state labors," Jaynem said, not really understanding Samirol's argument.

"That is because, my liege, there are many parallels between human children and dragon hatchlings, in terms of the paths of their development. They—we, and they… we are both intelligent species," Samirol said.

"That means nothing to me, Samirol," Jaynem said. "But, control—that means something to me. Why can I not keep my dragon in the Royal Stables, where he belongs? Why make me suffer the humiliation of training alongside the military's dregs?"

"Well…" Samirol said, clearing his throat, "because it is safest that way, milord. Would you rather have the military dragons brought up here, to the Royal Stables, instead?"

"No," Jaynem said, glaring at the thin man.

Samirol nodded—but tensely, and without relief.

"There is a slim chance that Zach's precocity might stop before it reaches the point where it is beyond control—that he will realize his—and your—true of power at a normal rate. The rituals performed on Zach's egg have never been done before—none of us are entirely sure of what to expect, your Highness. But, given how far his mental capacity has developed—and remember, milord, he is but two days old—is that a chance you are willing to take? Is it worth risking the future of the Dominion—and your place at the fore-front? As you yourself said, you need a dragon by your side—not a disobedient rival."

"Samirol," Jaynem began, slightly peeved that the Dragon Master had used his own words against him. The Prince stiffened his composure, and straightened his back, to make himself feel taller than the cowering figure of the wiry spindle of a man standing in front of him. "You do understand that what you are asking me to do violates generations of tradition. I will not sully that record without sufficient cause. Show me proof of his 'abilities', and I will consent to your demands. Otherwise, the integrity of House Doushani—and of the Dominion itself—shall remain pure, and uncorrupted by the weaknesses of lesser souls."

"And I shall, my most merciful Prince!"

"Good. Take him to the training grounds—the Royal Training grounds, not the military's. I will be there within an hour, Samirol," Jaynem said, curtly. "Make sure that you are ready to demonstrate your proof the very instant that I arrive. If not, then… well, you already know what will happen if this undignified scheme ends up amounting to nothing," he added, with a slight sneer.

"Thank you! May a thousand joys be yours, your Majesty!" Samirol said, bowing profusely—rushed, and sweaty—as Jaynem walked away, back down the hall.

Standing alone under the door-frame leading from the Royal Stables to the castle halls, Samirol gulped, knowing that he had his work cut out for him.

Sitting alone on the hay of his stall, Zach gulped—filled with worries over what was to come.

— — —

For once, Jaynem was truly excited. If this was all true—if Samirol's conclusions were accurate… well, then supreme power was just around the corner, instead of lurking down the road, years and years in into the future. As incredible as it seemed—especially given how much he enjoyed executing people who failed to live up to their words—Jaynem actually hoped that Samirol would succeeded in his outlandish quest.

{And, if he fails, I still get to watch his execution.} Jaynem sighed fondly at the thought. He had always wanted to see Samirol die in horrible agony, having had never cared much for his father's choice in appointing Samirol as Dragon Master. No amount of collegiate degrees or scholarly honors could make that man anything more than a petty fool in Jaynem's eyes—a gnat, destined to be squished underfoot the very instant that he lived out his usefulness.

{But enough about him,} Jaynem thought. The Prince didn't want to get himself into a bad mind-set—no, not when he had so much else to do today.

Yes… he was going to need some archers.


Revision History:

(12/1/2012) Fixed several typos (thanks to Anihyr Moonstar for pointing them out), as well as general editing and clean-up of the prose.

(10/24/2012) Revised my method for informing readers of my revisions.

(10/14/2012) Made a few miscellaneous edits here and there (commas and misspellings and typos, and whatnot).

(10/13/2012) Made important alterations to Jaynem and Samirol's discussion about Gazann, Emperor Feljann's dragon.

(10/12/2012) Made some additions (~ +228 words) to the dialogue between Jaynem and Samirol, clarifying some things. Fixed two embarrassing typos.

All story content Copyright 2012; MCS