Chapter 7: Flight and Fight

The double-doors swung back into place as Samirol pushed them shut. As they closed, the doors' hinges complained in metallic trills and un-oiled squeals.

The sudden rush of brightness caught Zach off-guard. He snapped his eyes shut—blinking a few times—momentarily overwhelmed by the barrage of daylight. They were in some kind of courtyard; that much, he could tell, even with his vision still acclimating to the unexpected glare of the rising Gherahjian sun. A dry and gentle breeze flowed through the air, bringing with it a whole catalogue of smells. They easily fingered their way into Zach's nostrils.

Like his eyes' reaction to the full-blown daylight, Zach's sense of smell was overloaded by an endless minutiae of details: water, trees, grass, urine, sand, dirt, mice, men, air, musk, fruit, smoke, bugs, scales, shit, milk, and on and on in a swirling list that never seemed to stabilize. The smells sifted through his awareness and ebbed through his senses. He made furtive mental grasps at the kaleidoscope stomping in his nose, trying to pick out a few from the rest. For a moment, they would haunt his vision; ghosts of a sensation, visible, yet invisible, but definitely there. But synesthesia would break apart as soon as it formed, sending the sensations tumbling back down, splashing into the sea of scents.

The pure, unfiltered smell of the world was too much for him. It stung. Literally. His vision spun, dizzied with sensations. The world seemed to go off-kilter.

«Ugh!»

Zach forced his eyes shut and shook his head. He tried to quiet the sensory noise He wanted it to stop. He wanted the odors to leave him alone. But they didn't. Instead, the smells just danced through his perceptions, fading in and out with his ever-shifting focus. It felt like his nose was on fire.

Click-click, click.

With his watery eyes still closed, Zach moved a few steps forward, claws a-clicking He stepped off the stone landing that stretched out beneath the double doors, and moved on—nearly stumbling—to the floor below. Samirol's arm jerked forward, following the leash as Zach pulled it along. Not really knowing what he was doing, Zach plunged the itchy, burning tip of his snout into the grassy lawn below. He rubbed and rolled his snout in the grass, like his nose was a shoe, covered it mud. With the chain-muzzle wrapped around his snout, Zach had to twist his head and neck about to get the maximum relief. Zach's breaths calmed as his olfactory world filled with a single, calming scent: cool grass, still wet with the morning's fading dew. The grass blotted out and pushed aside out the air's stinging smells.

Some of the tips of the grass tickled the inside of his nostrils, making him snort. Zach felt a little dizzy from the ordeal, but the feeling was fading fast.

Samirol didn't appear to be surprised by Zach's behavior in the slightest.

"Yes, it does smell unpleasant," he said, wrinkling his own, sniffling nose. "The palace's accumulated filth is burnt early in the morning, once a week; trash, bodily waste, and so on. The dragons do not venture out of their stables until later in the afternoon, when the smell has mostly dissipated."

«You… you could have warned me,» Zach said. His breathing grew easy, now that the air's rancid stench was being drowned out by the smell of the freshly-trimmed lawn stuffed up his nostrils.

"It wouldn't have made a difference," Samirol replied. "Lord Jaynem demands that I demonstrate your abilities to him. You must be trained, regardless of the conditions."

Zach felt comfortable enough to open his eyes, at last. He raised his head up and out of the grass and blinked several times, clearing his eyes of the gunk and gobs of leftover tears. Hesitant, he inhaled.

{That's… better, I guess,} he thought.

Though his nose still puckered at the acrid stench of distant piles of burning filth, it was tolerable, now—thank goodness. He almost felt comfortable with proceeding; his curiosity about this world—about Gherahjia—took care of the straggling inhibitions. Looking around, he was stunned by the massive quality of his surroundings. He and Samirol were in an enormous, rectangular courtyard. By Zach's reckoning, the courtyard's diagonal was at least as long as the HMS Titanic.

{That's eight-hundred-eighty-two-point… uh… point seven-five feet long,} he thought, recalling one of the many—mostly useless—statistics that his father had loved to rattle off —in song—while making his model-boat replicas.

The field—calling it a courtyard didn't do it justice—was surrounded on all sides by monolithic walls of deep-grey stone. They loomed tall in the distance, spiked with towers here and there; a strange, medieval-esque skyline. The field itself was gloriously green, divided in half along the diagonal by the slightly winding curves of a glisteningly clear artificial river. Most of the space was filled by a sea of grass, interrupted occasionally by a shrub or two, or by a small orchard of trees. The trees—the deciduous trees—were always clustered around what appeared to be small ponds. In fact, there was one nearby, just a few yards to the right of where Zach and Samirol were standing.

Zach craned his long neck up and over his shoulders and wings to get a look at the building—the castle—that he had been in. A tall tower stretched up, high above him. From where he was, Zach could just barely make out the onion-dome shape of the tower's roof. The tower itself was an extension of the wall; it jutted out from the long wall that stood behind him and Samirol—the wall that made up one of the four sides of the courtyard's rectangle.

Behind the tower, looming even higher was the magnificent palace itself—the seat of the entire Dominion. The palace had a singular, gigantic domed-crown-like shape. It rose up into the sky, level after level, like a beheaded Tower of Babel. It seemed like a cosmic hand had plucked the dome of a Renaissance church, inlaid it with gold and marble, wrapped the flying buttresses of a gothic cathedral around its perimeter, grown those extensions into eight tall, onion-dome-capped towers, and then, planted the whole thing into the ground, fully formed, and with a perfect, octagonal symmetry.

Above and beyond the palace's golden roofs, the cloudless sky overhead was a clear, baby blue in color—although, the hue was dimmed somewhat by the low angle of the sun. The sun it was just peaking over the top of the surrounding wall. Zach could only imagine the sickly-sweet blue kind of blue that the skies would don once the sun had risen high enough above the horizon.

Excepting the stench, the air was dry, light, and surprisingly warm for the early morning. There could be no doubt about it: this was a desert, the very opposite of the moist and foggy San Francisco weather that Zach was so familiar with. Back home in Northern California, folks would count the days where the weather was like this—clear, and with sunshine raining down. Zach assumed that the people of Gherahjia probably did something similar with wet, cloudy days. God knows; they would certainly need them.

{The landscaping must cost a fortune,} he thought, reflecting on just how much it would cost to support all this water and verdure in a desert climate.

Thinking about water—its strange, simultaneous lack and excess, here in the desert-land of Gherahjia—made Zach aware of his own, burgeoning thirst. It was peculiar, the sensation of dry-mouth in such a large mouth; on his tongue, on his mouth's long roof, and between and around his many serrated, curved dagger teeth.

The harder sounds of Samirol's shoe-soles stepping on the doorway's stone landing gave way to the quieter, compressed sounds of footsteps on grass. As if on cue, the Dragon Master closed the small gap between Zach and himself, and then reached for the back of the dragon's head. Zach tottered a step or two away, rearing back his neck in worry.

"I'm taking it off, Zach," Samirol said. "The muzzle."

«Really?» Zach asked, his eyes immediately widening with hope. He moved close to Samirol's thin figure, sticking his head out, almost shoving it into the man's chest.

"Wait just a moment," he said, letting go of the leash and reaching for Zach's head once more—this time with both hands, for the extra expediency. Samirol unlinked the three separate chain-links that were fastened back there. He did the same for the three chain-links wrapped around Zach's snout, unfastening them at the underside of his head, right near the base of the jaw. With the links unhooked and opened, Samirol slipped the chain-mail-like muzzle off from Zach's snout. It tickled Zach a little.

Samirol took the length of chain that had served as Zach's leash and wrapped it around the removed metal-muzzle, many times over. Tied up as such, the chain links were bent at odd angles, as they tried to approximate the smooth circular shape that the metal's inflexibility forbade them from taking. Holding the clunky ball that had been Zach's muzzle in one hand, Samirol pulled at the upper rim of the frilly, ribbed torus encircling his waist. To Zach's surprise, the rim pulled away from Samirol's side, revealing that the 'interior' of this poofy extension of the Dragon Master's pants was hollow. The scholar's… whatever-it-was was a glorified storage-doughnut, with a shape eerily similar to the trousers of a seventeenth-century Dutch nobleman. Samirol plopped the balled-up muzzle inside, and then released the rim of the torus, letting it snap back in place, tight against his waist.

«You carry stuff inside your pants; inside a… an inner-tube?»

"It's my own invention," [1] Samirol said. "Useful for the scholar on-the-go."

Zach couldn't think of a response for that.

«I'm thirsty,» Zach said, breaking the momentary silence.

For some reason, he didn't feel comfortable with just walking away from Samirol without so much as an explanation of his intent.

"There's water in that pool, over there," Samirol replied, pointing a bony finger at the same, tree-shaded pool that Zach had noticed just a minute or so before.

"But, b-be quick about it," Samirol added, his voice quavering. "We don't have any time to waste."

Zach nodded his head in acknowledgement, and then trotted off.

It felt much better walking on the good earth, rather than the cold, forced smoothness of the palace's halls. His claws didn't make any click-ing noises, either. Most of the noises made by his footsteps were muffled in grass underfoot. It took only a few seconds to cross the several yards' distance to get to the pond. With each step, the ground gave way ever-so-slightly beneath the tough, padded scales on the undersides of his lengthy toes.

As he approached the water's edge—shaded underneath the still leaves of the surrounding trees—Zach saw that the "pond" wasn't really a pond. Not a natural one, anyway. Like the river, it was an artificial water-source. The "pond" was a water basin; a rectangle sunk into the ground, with sloping sides, the base and sides of which were covered by elegant green-and-blue lacquered tiles.

He was nearly there now; apprehensive, Zach took a deep breath.

And then, there it was: his reflection.

Even though it was barely a toddler, the young dragon that stared back out at Zach already looked distinguished, and very striking. The shining ebony color of its claws and talons were repeated in the dew-claws jutting out of its elbows—both on the wings and the forelimbs—and, at the very back of its heels. That dark color was most noticeable in the raggedly-spiraling horns sprouting out—straight, but twisted—on either side of its sleek, trainguloid head, right above, and slightly behind the ridges of scales that jutted out above either of its eyes. The dragon was a little over six feet long—with a wing-span more than twice that, no doubt—and it would only get larger as the days rolled by. Even folded up against its flanks, as they were right now, its wings still looked utterly fantastic, like a piece of an ancient flying machine—modeled after a bat—that had been affixed to the back of a wine-purple lizard. The dragon's slender neck was bent at an inquisitive angle. Its haunting, nearly-expressionless eyes—colored waves of grain—amber-hued, like the sunset, with tall black slit-pupils wandering lonely among them—watched their viewer with a strangely subtle palette of emotions: fear, curiosity, confusion, and, above all, a desire for normalcy—for the return of reassuring banalities; for the comfort of the usual, and the routine.

{Th-that's… that's me?} Zach asked himself, still finding it difficult to swallow.

Taking pause, Zach sat down on his haunches, contemplating the many feelings that scampered through his mind. There was something about seeing at his reflection slightly distorted by the water's undulations—something that looking at his new body with his own two eyes couldn't even begin to approach. Seeing himself through his own eyes alone, or seeing Gazann's body; those experiences felt truly detached by comparison.

Remembering his thirst, Zach lowered his head toward the pool, ready to plunge his open mouth into the cooling liquid. But, just as the tip of his snout grazed the water's surface, he stopped himself.

{Wait, if I….} He couldn't just dip his face into the water; he'd get water up his nose.

{Don't lions lick up water with their tongues?} Zach asked himself.

He did so, lapping up a sliver of water with his tongue. He was surprised that it wasn't forked.

The water trickled down his throat, but it wasn't anywhere near enough. At this rate, he'd never quench his thirst. And so, second guessing his second guessing, Zach plunged the lower half of his snout into the water—nose, mouth and all; he tried his best not to breathe in through his nose. Curiously—a few deep gulps later—it seemed to have worked. It was actually easier than he'd expected; he could sort of squint his nostrils closed to keep out the water. Zach pulled his face out of the water, and snorted, blowing the water droplets off of his nostrils. He clapped his jaws together, licking his moistened chops.

{It's going to take a while for me to get used to this,} he thought.

Samirol walked over to the pool; Zach snapped his head around at the sounds of grass brushing up against the sides of the Dragon Master's shoes.

"Zach: you're taking too long," he said. "We need to begin."

Sighing quietly in his mind, Zach turned around and got back to his feet.

«Okay, so… what are we going to do?» he asked.

"You are going to fly, Zach."

«What?! Fly? Now?» Zach twitched his tail, frightened, excited, and nervous, all at the same time.

"Yes. You should move away from these trees, and out into the field, to give yourself some room to take off," Samirol said. "Now, come along," he added as he began to walk further out into the field, away from the pool and the small orchard surrounding it.

Zach didn't immediately follow Samirol's lead. Instead, he had sat back down on his haunches, trying to process the fact that he was about to learn how to fly. And to think, just a few days ago, his biggest educational woe was learning to distinguish between the different kinds of conic sections.

{This is crazy,} he though.

Samirol stopped walking and turned around. He looked quite irked. "Now, Zach," he said, insistently.

That seemed to give the dragon the impetus he had lacked; Zach walked toward Samirol. Once he caught up with him, Zach continued to trot alongside the scholar. As Zach and Samirol placed some distance between themselves and the trees, the sun finally crested over the field's distant wall, bathing the whole area in an orange glow. As Zach moved out of the shade and into the massive open plain of the courtyard, the mounting warmth of the rising sun's rays became a heated brush against his scales. It was a massaging buzz that seeped deep into his flesh, tingling his every muscle. Zach let his wings loosen, stretching them away from his body, ever-so-slightly, so that they might capture more of the tantalizing sunbeams. He shivered with pleasure as his reptilian body soaked up the heat—from the sun and from the air; a wonderful sensation, if there ever was one.

After about a minute of walking, Samirol stopped, and then, so did Zach. The two of them stood quite a ways away from the doorway through which they had entered the field, several hundred feet away from the nearest patch of trees.

"This is good enough," Samirol said, looking around, just to be sure.

For a moment, Zach didn't do anything constructive. In his apprehension—in his, admittedly anxious, state—Zach shuffled his arms and legs about, stretching them, and pointlessly flexing his elbows and knees. He fidgeted his wings, and wasted more time looking at himself, sure of what he wanted, but unsure about how he would get it. He swished his tail from side to side like a dog, but out of anxiety, as much as from excitement. Zach unconsciously dug his claws into the soil underfoot—a dragon's way of "clenching its teeth"; his shoulders bunched up, as if they were stuck in an exaggerated shrug.

Closing his eyes, Zach took a deep breath, trying to relax, and steady himself—emotionally, and physically. He tried to release the tightness of his claws as best he could, but his shoulders still felt tense—all four of them. Even now, he could feel the wind brushing and pushing his wings, fondling his membranes with its ephemeral strokes. Zach's wings quivered with anticipation, matching the now-rushing pace of his heart. He wanted to get off of the ground; he wanted to get away from all of the things that had been shoved upon him so suddenly—Jaynem, most of all.

"Are you ready?" Samirol asked; Zach took that as his queue to get going.

So, not really knowing what he was doing, Zach opened his wings to their full extent, spreading them wide to either side, catching the breeze. As far as he knew, that seemed like the right sort of thing to do; it did make him feel like a commercial airliner, though. The thought made Zach chuckle—a strange, yip-like growl.

{I need to focus,} Zach told himself.

Steadying himself—tensing his muscles—Zach took a deep breath and then immediately launched himself into a full-on sprint, unaware of the shocked look that had jumped onto Samirol's face.

"Wait, what are you…? No! Zach!" Samirol yelled, trying, and failing, to chase after the overzealous dragon. His voice was filled with worry.

But Zach couldn't hear him. He was too caught up in the moment, galloping across the field, all seven of his limbs flailing wildly—ungainly— as the grass rushed beneath him. His feet pounded and leaped with every bound; the wind whipped at his wings. Exhilarated—stretching his neck out long, ready to zoom off—Zach let the air lift up the fore-part of his wings, and then started flapping them with all his might. The thick slabs of air buffeted his unfurled wings, making Zach quaver—threatening to topple him over. But he didn't care.

He felt the ground fall out from underneath him.

«Yes, yes yes yes!» He was rising—an inch! He was rising—a foot!

Zach flapped with an even greater fury, ready to climb into the sky; ready to achieve that which man had dreamed of since he first laid eyes on….

{Wha—!?}

The air flow clipped on him; Zach's momentary hovering broke, sending him tumbling forward. Zach uselessly pedaled his arms and legs, air, dog-paddling through the air. He curled forward, tipping nose-down, as he plowed into the firm earth below.

«No, no no no no!—»

Clumph-umble shurrrrrikt!

The whole front and bottom of his body slid over the ground. Zach's belly, snout, and splayed-out claws dug a shallow path in the soil, ripping up clumps of grass as he skid to a sudden halt. Though the force of the impact hurt, the scutes on Zach's underbelly had kept him from being injured beyond a slight scratch here and there. But still, startled by pain—both physical, and of failure—Zach yelped aloud. Snorting, Zach shook his head and then rubbed the tip of his snout against his right forearm, trying to shake or scrub away the irritating clumps of dirt and plant debris that had been pressed onto, and even into, his nose. Slowly, shakily, the downed dragon got back to his feet.

{Maybe I'm not ready to fly, yet.} The thought actually saddened Zach a little; he let his wings sag, and droop down toward the ground.

"Zach! Zach!" Samirol cried out, heavily panting as he chased after the sprinting dragon.

Zach slowly stepped away from the slight indentation his crash had made in the field, and turned to face the wheezing Dragon Master.

Nearly hyperventilating by this point, Samirol came to a stop right beside Zach. He was bent over at a nearly a right angle, with his knees bent, and his hands pressed down on his thighs. Samirol tightly clutched his green hat in his right hand, leaving his flawless, brilliantly-bald head uncovered. Zach's eyes could pick up traces of the hair-growing tonic—applied daily, every morning—on the man's head, glistening in the rising sunlight.

"Are you… are you alright?" Samirol asked; his words punctuated by his gasping breaths. Samirol could see just how much the crash had scuffed up Zach's scales.

{By the sands, if Jaynem sees this!} Samirol thought, his stomach fluttering up into his throat. Zach would need to be bathed and have his scales burnished, otherwise….

{But it won't matter if I can't get him to do something,} Samirol thought, grimly.

"Are you alright, Zach?" he asked once more.

«Ye-Yes. I think so,» came the reply.

"What were you doing, charging off like that? What were you thinking?" the scholar sputtered

«Trying to fly! What else?!» Zach 'yelled'. The pressure he was under—both from himself, and from Jaynem's threats—had really started to eat its way under his scales.

"Well, you won't get off the ground doing it like that!" Samirol replied, forcing a laugh over his voice's shudders. With his breathing calming somewhat—with the panting starting to subside—Samirol had recovered enough stamina to manage to straighten out his posture. He un-crumpled his hat and placed it back on his head; Samirol's finger's fidgeted with the hat for a few seconds, shifting it and rotating it until it securely gripped to his slippery-smooth skull.

Zach growled at Samirol; he opened his jaw slightly, just enough to bear his teeth at the scholar. He'd always disliked getting mixed messages: "do this—but, no, don't do it like that." It was laziness and dishonesty mixed up in one package, and Zach didn't care for it in the least.

«Then why don't you do it?» he said. Zach stopped growling and flexed his wings. The gesture held a strange mix of feelings: Zach's slowly-growing pride over what he could do, and his resentment toward what he had lost—toward what this unexpected body-swap had cost him.

"I cannot do it for you, Zach," Samirol said, furrowing his brow. "You need to take the leap yourself—and soon," he added.

«I did; I crashed.»

Samirol shook his head. "As I just told you, that's not the right way to do it. Running is suited for taking off into a glide from up high. The aerodynamics of a ground-level take off necessitates a vertical take-off. As long as the flight is started properly, he horizontal momentum will follow automatically."

Zach tried to roll his eyes with as much exasperation as he could muster. It wasn't nearly as effective as a human eye-roll, but it got the message across.

Samirol tried again; he tried to be simpler this time.

"You don't run; you just stand still and flap your wings," he said. "Oh, and make sure to push off the ground with your legs," he added. "It greatly reduces the energy expended when entering flight."

«Okay,» Zach said, pleased and placated that someone in this world was finally giving him a useful explanation about something.

{Too bad, it isn't about people turning into dragons,} Zach quipped.

"Furthermore," Samirol said, continuing his instruction, "the up-stroke is the most important motion in flight. No matter how powerful your down-stroke might be, it will last only as long as there is still room left for your wings to flap down. Thus, the higher up your wings go during the up-stroke—the closer to the vertical axis they are—the longer, and hence, the more effective, your wing-strokes will be. Hence, the down-stroke's success is dependent upon the quality of the preceding upstroke; not the other way around."

Zach thought about that.

"Do you understand, Zach?" Samirol asked—his eyebrows twitching.

«I think so,» Zach said, as he stepped away, getting ready to try again.

{I'll believe it when I see it,} Samirol thought.

"Show me your best up-stroke, then," Samirol said.

Zach nod-bobbed his head, accepting the Dragon Master's challenge.

Once again, Zach unfurled his wings from their normal, relaxed position, folded up against his sides. Heaving—straightening and lowering his head and neck—Zach lifted his wings as high as he thought he should.

«How's that?» Zach asked, hoping to get this over with so that he might try to get in the air again as soon as possible.

"No, that's not good enough," Samirol replied, shaking his head with nervous disapproval.

Before Zach could as much as groan, Samirol had grabbed hold of his wings. Yes, his touch was ginger—not at all rough—but it still bothered the young dragon, being fondled like a show-horse. Zach flicked his tail and ear-fins a few times, as Samirol carefully showed him what the correct position was. Pushing gently near the base of either of Zach's wings, the Dragon Master lifted them several inches higher—several inches closer to the vertical axis.

«Oh!» Zach exclaimed. He hadn't thought that his wings could go up that high, but it seemed he'd been mistaken.

"Now hold them there for a moment, then gently bring them down," Samirol said, as he moved his fingers away from the slender bones of Zach's wings.

Zach did as he was told.

"Good. Now, do it again; on your own, this time," Samirol said.

Once again, Zach obeyed without much complaint. He liked getting things done the right way. Experience had taught him that there was a big difference there could be between doing something "almost right" and doing it "exactly right". So—remembering the position—Zach raised his wings in a commanding up-stroke, stretching out the tendons of his wing-shoulders to their maximum extent; lifting them nearly parallel to the vertical.

"Yes, that's it," Samirol said, shakily nodding his head with approval.

Pleased with the praise, Zach started to relax his wings.

"Now you can try again," Samirol added.

«The wing thing?» Zach asked, slightly puzzled; he hadn't finished pulling in his wings yet. In his confusion, he froze his wings, keeping them half-way between an up-stroke and being folded away against his sides, just in case he needed to do some more posturing for the Dragon Master.

"No: flying. Try flying again," Samirol said, clarifying his meaning. He took several steps back to give the dragon room for a take-off.

After hearing Samirol's words, Zach didn't need any more prompting. He actually wanted to fly, and not just because it would put more distance between himself and the Prince; that was just an added bonus.

Nodding his head and spreading his wings out as wide as he could, Zach raised them up high and then flapped them in a mighty down-stroke. To Zach's astonishment, that simple action had raised him a few inches off the ground. Blistering with excitement now—finally ready to rocket into the air—Zach pushed his muscles to beat his wings up and down as rapidly as possible.

Thump!

Panting, Zach fell back down to the ground—dropping a few feet in the process.

«OW!» he 'yelled'. Zach let loose a loud yelp of pain as his belly smacked against the grass below; his arms, legs, and tail splayed out around him, like the limbs of a misshapen starfish.

«What'd I do wrong now?» Zach whined. He shakily got back to his feet.

"You flapped too quickly," Samirol said, crossing his bony arms, and tapping his foot out of irritation, and worry. "Particularly for a dragon, rapid strokes lack the efficacy of slower, more rhythmic wing-beats. Rapid strokes are shallow; patient strokes are strong."

«Is that all?» Zach asked. He didn't want to crash-land a third time; it would hurt, and, Zach doubted that he'd have enough energy to try a fourth time.

"Actually, it would be more effective if you pushed yourself off the ground with your limbs," Samirol said. "Other than that, however, everything about your motions seemed optimal," he added.

Zach spent a moment taking a few deep breaths.

"Well, get on with it," [2] Samirol urged him.

Zach took one last deep breath, and then, crouching down—tensing his limbs—he lifted his wings high. He pumped them down once, springing away from the ground with a leap from all fours. The ground fell away from underneath him, though his tail still grazed the grass below. Unlike before, Zach waited until his wings reached apex of their downward stroke before raising them up in preparation for the next stroke.

The tip of Zach's tail lifted up into the air, joining the rest of him in his immanent take-off.

Once again, timing it just right, Zach followed his second down-stroke with a third up-stroke; then a fourth down, and a fifth up; a fifth down and a sixth up. He rose higher, climbing skyward in punctuated surges—in synch with the force of his wings' every down-beat. Again and again, he pushed his wings up and down against the resistance of the air. The noises made by his flapping wings smacking against the air rushed behind his ear-fins, sounding to Zach like a giant paper bag being shaken out by a flailing hand. The sound seemed to click with something inside Zach's brain, for the patterns of his wings' quickly fell under the control of some odd mental autopilot; it was like walking, only not quite. Even as he still rose higher and higher—past the height of the field's tallest tree—the ground and grass and many scattered waters sinking away from his sight—Zach could feel the rhythm of flight seeping deep into his chest, awakening an instinctive, yearning drive within him for the sky.

Adding an extra push to the steady, pulsing beats of his wings, Zach gained enough forward momentum to zoom forward. No longer was he simply rising; no—now, true flight was his to own and cherish.

{I'm—I'm….} Overwhelmed with the magnificence of it all, Zach's thoughts sputtered to a stop—but only for a moment.

«Yahoooo! I'm flying! I'm flying!» Zach thought, not realizing that, in his excitement, he had accidentally broadcast his thoughts. Fortunately, it was a harmless message—and, a completely honest one. He was flying, really, truly flying; not through mere fancy alone, or by the assistance of technology, but solely through the effort of his mind and body. The very idea filled Zach with a great sense of joy. It was an experience unlike any he had ever had before; it was liberating, beyond what Zach had thought possible. Yes, he'd had flying dreams as a human—didn't everybody?—but they were little more than shadows of an impression, compared to the living, breathing miracle that was real flight.

He tucked his arms and legs close along his underbelly, smoothing out his flight profile—reducing the aerial drag. Then, adjusting his wings—slowing the rate of his wing-beats, even—Zach's flight smoothened out into an arrow-straight path. Warmed by the sun's rays, the air beneath him rose up from the ground. Zach's wings caught hold of the thermal up-drafts, using them to effortlessly—almost lazily—soar ever-higher into the sky.

It was amazing, all of the things that he could see from up above. With the sky warm, clear, and cloudless—and with his eyes, his marvelous eyes—Zach could have sworn that he could see the whole continent; he took it all in with a healthy sense of wonder.

Far to the distance, the land blended into a smooth sheet of desert; sometimes flat, and adorned with scattered bushes and lonely palm trees; other times, undulating hills of golden sand dunes. Beyond them, near the very edges of his perception, Zach could see the foot-hills, cliffs and winding canyons of distant mountains—highlands, in every sense of the word. Dead river-beds, dusty wadis, and parched gullies snaked across the landscape here and there, occasionally filled with some nearly-vanished muddy pools—the pools filled with dying, barely-flailing fish—but, mostly dry and quiet, dead among the sands. In a few, rare places—always with distant cities clustered about them—Zach could pick up traces of surviving oases in the midst of the sun-blasted hell-scape that was Gherahjia.

His curiosity rising, Zach decided he wanted to get a look at the palace and its environs. But, that was all behind him, not in front of him.

{How do I turn?} he wondered.

Zach tried several things at this point. He jerked his head repeatedly to the right, hoping to turn that way—but that just made him dizzy. He tried doing the same thing with his tail, but that made him start to tip over—a terrifying experience to behold.

The wall was approaching. He needed to turn soon.

{Uh… uh…} Zach's exhilaration was starting to rot into panic. He felt like one of his remote-control race-car, about to crash into the—

«That's it!»

Cars—remote-control cars; they had two levers, one for each wheel! And you turned the cars by—

In a rush, praying that his wandering thoughts were right, Zach started to off-set the rhythms of his wing-beats, making his right wing beat faster than his left. A lot faster.

Woosh! The whole world rocked beneath him as he banked hard to the right.

«Yes!»

Smoothing out the differences between the beats, Zach found that he could easily turn whichever way he wished by off-setting both his wing-rhythm and his body's tilt in the direction he wanted to go. So—stabilizing his path, his sharp turn stretched out into a long arc of a u-turn. He then straightened his path, and added more force to his flight, sending himself away from the looming wall—back the way he came. And as he looked ahead, he could indeed see the palace. His eyes caught the sun's rays reflecting off the gold-tiled palace roof. The light had turned it brilliant, shimmering and luminous, making the view from the air—of the palace, and of the courtyard's walls—all the more impressive. But—considering how close he'd just been to one—it was what lay beyond and around the walls that intrigued Zach most of all.

The palace complex and courtyards—yes, there were more than one!—were set up on a not-too-steep hill that rose up from the ands below. Like the lush greenery of the palace complex, the hill itself was covered by trees and grass, but it was far less spectacular than verdure of the courtyard below—to say nothing of the edenic splendor of the Palace gardens; though Zach could only glimpse the gardens out of the corner of his eye, it still awed him. The finest colored paints had rained down from the heavens, there, and had then grown up into a perfect canvas; a magnificent poetry of plant, flower, tree, and form. It was hard for Zach to keep from turning toward the gardens. He wanted to lazily soar above them, taking them in for hours at a time—but he managed to control himself. His curiosity about his new world demanded it. And, certainly, there was much to be curious about.

The city—whatever its name was—was tightly huddled around the towering walls that encircled the base of the hill upon which the palace complex stood. To Zach's eyes, the pueblo-like architecture of the buildings reminded him of Agrabah—the city in Disney's Aladdin. The crooked stacks and tall, long lines of homes of stone and clay that made up most of the residences certainly did call to mind something Middle-Eastern. And yet—even though it was only a coincidence—there were also qualities that Zach could best describe as almost Roman in appearance; wide plazas, streets paved with cobble-stone, and the many, red, brown, grey or orange-hued bricks that most of the buildings were built out of; shaped into arches, bridges, aqueducts, and small, peaked towers that all proved themselves surprising delightful to look at. A sea of brightly-colored cloths were strung out in front of the buildings—hanging over the streets—or, were propped up by posts set on rooftops. They provided a strange, earthy counterpoint—reflection?—to the almost otherworldly beauty of the palace gardens.

Even though the smell of grass still gripped tightly to his nasal passages, Zach could still make out a vibrant myriad of smells: the smoke from smoked ham, swelling up from chimney-tops; food vendors getting out their wares for the day's sales; dark, muddy pools of water, speedily evaporating into the air—and, above it all, around it all, the smell of shit. Human shit—it's fuming odor wafting gently from out open windows; pig shit—encrusted haphazardly against alley-walls, like the very best or worst of Jackson Pollock; and camel shit, pounded down into nearly every street. It was both completely disgusting—the sheer ubiquity of shit—and utterly amazing—the fact that his nose could somehow discern each and every type, and to whom it belonged, regardless of the species. Zach made a mental note to explore more of his nasal abilities—preferably with more savory scents.

Once again, Zach turned to the right—achieving the motion by slightly reducing the strength and frequency of his right wing's flaps, and by tilting his whole body more-or-less in that same direction. The effect was to move him around once more, sending him back the direction from whence he came, a turn before.

Part of Zach wanted to do some tricks, like a loop-de-loop, or a barrel-roll—to take his body for a truly wild ride—but the young dragon was wise enough to save that for a later date. Zach was perfectly content with tracing out a wide, elliptical path in the air. He was flying; for now that was all that really mattered.

— — —

The great doors of the palace creaked—terrified—as muscled arms thrust them open. As he walked out onto the great open space of the training field—with three of the army's finest archers following behind him—Jaynem smiled. He could just make out the small, wingèd purple blotch flying around in lazy curves, high up in the air.

{Excellent,} the Prince thought. {This should be entertaining.}

Jaynem raised his arm, motioning toward the tall, leather-armored figures of the archers behind him. Each of them pulled their gleaming, white longbows from off their backs; many-fanged crescent moons, strings strung taught between their re-curved tips.

Jaynem and his mini entourage stomped out onto the grass as they marched toward skyward-gazing Samirol. The scholar didn't even notice their presence until a glance his wandering eyes—followed up by a sharp double-take of his head—confirmed it. His figure swooned—his posture faltered—as his heart, stomach, spleen and all seemed to tumble down beneath the soles of his feet. Samirol's hands flew up to grab the brim of his hat, as if trying to keep him from collapsing on the ground. It seemed to work—but still, his knees stayed locked in place.

"Y-Your m-majesty! You—you're—!" Samirol's tongue was racing 'bout as fast as his heart. "B-But it's been… it's been only—only forty min—"

"I told you to be ready within an hour, fool. Do not dare think that you are in a position to try and argue that I said anything otherwise," Jaynem said. "Besides, I always enjoy making inspections early—or did you forget?" he added, with a grin.

"B-B—"

Jayne raised the palm of his hand.

"B-B-B-Be silent, Samirol—you wouldn't want to waste your final words now, now would you?" Jaynem said, mocking the terrified scholar's uncontrollable stuttering with faux stuttering of his own. "Now, let's see whether or not you've unlocked my dragon's supposed potential, hmm?" Jaynem motioned once more to his archers. "Men, aim for my dragon. Try to avoid the wings, but feel free to gash him on the sides. He needs to learn how to bleed."

"Yes, milord," replied the three archers in unison—almost droning.

Moving as one, they each pulled a first arrow out from the large quivers strapped to their backs. They loaded their bows and pulled the strings taught.

— — —

It had been less than ten minutes since Zach been in the air for around ten minutes when he felt it—when he felt him.

{Jaynem!} Zach thought, as felt the Prince approach—a sadistic storm cloud coming in from the horizon.

Somehow, the Link let him know where Jaynem was—not directly, like a point on a map, but more like a general impression of how close or far, and what direction. Worried, Zach doubled back around toward the palace side of the field. Even at this distance, Zach could see Jaynem with ease the very instant he finished aerial u-turn. And the Prince wasn't alone.

{Wait—who are…?}

Zach's thoughts were interrupted when he caught sight of the several long, thin, shiny-tipped objects that rushed toward him, zipping whistling parabolas through the air. The sight was so unexpected—so outlandish, that it took Zach's brain several extra milliseconds to put two and two together.

They—Jaynem's goons—were shooting arrows at him.

In his surprise, the young dragon's wings missed a beat or two, causing his flight path to veer off toward the ground. By sheer luck, this put him out of reach of the volley of arrows; they whooshed over his head, moving so fast that he could feel the ripples the arrows left in the air brushing up against his scales. Realizing that he was crashing, Zach redoubled his wing-flaps, jerking out of freefall and back into a controlled flight. But Jaynem and his archers were just getting started: waves and waves of arrows were rushing toward Zach, shot out at variable directions, like the spray from a rotating sprinkler-head. In an instant, they would be upon him.

Panicking, Zach did whatever he could think of to dodge the oncoming storm. He rolled his body to the left, curving his flight path in that direction; then he rolled to the right, and then left again—alternating directions in a serpentine side-wind, trying to avoid being hit. He pumped his wings faster and faster, almost to the point that they would break away from the rhythm of flight, and send him crashing down once more. He angled his zigzagging up, trying to climb above the hail of arrows.

{Nearly there; nearly there!} Zach's mind drummed.

Suddenly, one of the magically-sharpened, arrow-heads—designed to cut—grazed across his scales, slicing Zach open in a long gash.

«Gah!» Zach 'screamed'—squeakily roaring aloud, too—as the searing pain of blood dripping from a fresh wound bit fiercely at his left flank.

The shock of the injury, and the pain that now came with every stroke of his left wing made Zach's coördination falter once more. His left wing lagged slightly behind his right, causing his path to veer off to the left—right into another stream of arrows.

Acting on some strange combination of imagination and instinct, Zach grit his fangs against the pain, strongly flapped his right wing and then drew both of them close against his sides. Continuing off the angular momentum from that last flap Zach rolled his body around and around into a fiercely-spiraling corkscrew; earth and sky whirled about him, swapping places over and over, seemingly without end. The force of his motions made eddies in the air, sending most of the arrows off course; with this tactic, the arrow-heads made little more than shallow nicks against his hide. Some trickled blood, others didn't—but still, Zach winced at almost every scratch.

Soon, the dizzying whirls of his own stunt proved too much for Zach; he couldn't keep the corkscrew any longer. Righting himself with a sudden unfurling of his wings, Zach vigorously shook his head, shooing away the disorientation as he surged back up into the air once more—only to be bit on the back by a passing arrow. The young dragon let loose another roar of pain.

And still, the arrows kept coming.

Zach realized that his only hope was to get out of sight. He wasn't a skilled enough flier; he couldn't keep dodging all these arrows for much longer. He needed a place to hide.

Frantically scanning the field—frantically beating his wings—Zach searched for a safe-haven, but to no avail. The field, in its openness, was too large; he couldn't find any place to hide! They would see him, if he tried to land in any of the tree orchards, and the pools and the river couldn't….

{Unless….} The light of inspiration flicked on in Zach's mind.

It was crazy enough to work, and Zach was certainly desperate enough to try it. He tilted himself downward, drawing his wings in as he streamed into a sharp nose-dive, aimed straight for the nearest orchard nearest to the river—surprisingly close to where Samirol, Jaynem and the archers now stood.

The ground came rushing toward him. With a spurt of energy, Zach zoomed into the trees' leafy canopies. And then, just as he was about to slam snout-first into a tree-trunk, Zach used as many of his four legs as he could to push himself away from the wood, and send himself plummeting into the shaded river below. It was like doing a turn-around while lap-swimming; something that Zach—a damned good swimmer in his own right—was all-too familiar with.

The water surrounded Zach the moment he plunged beneath the river's surface, instantly recalling the dreadful experience of being inside his egg. His instincts were screaming up and down his body; get out!, they said. Get out! But, for once, Zach paid them no heed. He pressed his ear-fins tightly against the sides of his head, sealing his ear-holes, keeping water from trickling in. Then, stilling his flailing tail, Zach calmed his panicking limbs—arms, legs, and wings—focusing and coordinating his motions until he was able to plant all four of his paws firmly on the tile-covered floor of the artificial river. The water's coolness, and the light streaming down from the skies above reminded him of swimming out in Aquatic Park, back home in the City; the memory strengthened Zach's resolve, helping him push his body's revulsion aside.

Zach crawled along the floor as stealthily as he could, trying his best to disturb the flowing water's surface as little as possible. He stuck the tip of his nose—his nostrils—just above the surface, breathing through his snout like a snorkel. Zach moved quite a distance along the river bottom‑far away from the orchard of trees that he had crash-landed in. He didn't stop crawling until the river was once again shaded by another grove of trees, and when he did, he stayed there, knowing that the dark coloration of his scales would help him blend in with the shadows cast by the surrounding trees. Zach held tightly to the hope that his feint tree-crash had fooled his attackers. For a moment, the only things he could hear were the sounds of his breaths and his pounding heartbeats pulsing through his veins. Both were ragged with stress, but they grew calmer with each passing second of safety.

Then, out of nowhere, he heard a voice:

«Goz—Zach,» it said, correcting itself—but still pronouncing "Zach" as "Zock". It was Jaynem; he was using telepathy!

{What? How?} Zach thought. Startled, he raised his tail and slapped it down, against the tiled river-bed. {It must be the Link!} he thought, suddenly filled with realization.

«Come out, come out, wherever you are…» Jaynem taunted, in a cold, sing-song voice.

{Don't say anything. Don't say anything,} Zach chanted, trying to keep himself from accidentally opening his telepathic 'mouth' and giving his position away to that psychopath.

«Zach, I know that you are there…. There's no use hiding. Hiding is weakness; you would do well to avoid it.»

{Think of the sea; think of the clouds,} Zach urged himself. Jaynem's taunting was making it harder and harder for the young dragon to keep his instincts under control.

Zach heard the sounds of heavy footsteps, distorted as their vibrations passed through the water. A wave of nausea swept over him. Maybe it was his fear; maybe it was his body's protests. Zach didn't know, and he sure as hell wasn't in the mood to think about it.

{Go away… go away…} he thought, his chants growing louder and louder in the confines of his mind; too loud.

«Go away… Go aw—!» Zach's mind reeled: he'd done it again. He could already see Jaynem and his goons rushing toward him.

«Shit! Shit shit shit sh—»

«—Hah! For you maybe, » Jaynem 'said', cackling.

Before Zach could do anything, Jaynem cast a spell. Zach's whole world erupted in pain; bolts of electricity suddenly ran rampant through the water around, sending the searing heat of electrocution coursing down past his scales.

«AHHH!» Zach sprang out of the boiling waters, claws at the ready.

Zach pounced forward and the jolted to the right. Swerving about, he slashed wildly at whatever he could—but he couldn't quite see what he was doing. His vision still smelled blue; his nose was still hearing the crackle of fading lightning. But, with his momentary blindness, Zach failed to strike at his attackers. The desperate force that Zach put into those wasted attacks quickly drained him of what little stamina he had left. Exhausted, and tingly all over, Zach slumped down to the ground—still conscious, but barely able to move. The tidal surges of his breath flowing in and out of his panting lungs drowned out most every other sound—save for the racing of his beating heart.

"You have disappointed me for the last time, Samirol. It seems I was right about you all along," Jaynem said. He stood strong and ferocious up ahead—his royal attire flawless white, as usual.

Two of Jaynem's three goons had grabbed hold of Samirol, suspending him in mid-air; the third had his strung his bow and had his arrow set straight for the scholar's heart. With a laugh, Jaynem cast a spell, wrapping the arrowhead in a coursing twister of plasma and lightning.

Then, at the last possible moment, the daze Jaynem's electrical spell had left in Zach's mind finally cleared. He could see straight, again. He could think straight, again. The archers were about to kill Samirol, and Zach—pacifist that he was—wasn't about to let that happen.

«No!»

An anger built up inside of Zach; an outrage stronger than any he could ever remember. Maybe it was part of being a dragon; maybe it was a release of the anger he felt toward his unwanted transformation, and to the new world that he'd been ejected into. Yes, maybe—but the maybes didn't matter to Zach now. His thoughts and passions boiled away, leaving behind only an edifice of pure, determined focus.

Zach struggled to his feet. He took a shaky step forward; he stretched out his neck and reared back his head—his jaws agape in indignation.

"Fire," the Prince commanded.

The same instant that the archer let the lightning-tipped arrow fly toward Samirol's melting figure, Zach roared—no, not roared; something else, entirely. A bubble of heat rose up in his throat like magma. Surging, the seething torrent of fire exploded out from Zach's open mouth. But there was more. As the arrow flew, shattering across each frame of time, the flames of Zach's breath curled and bent under the distilled force of his will. Where there was once empty air, the current of fire had stretched out to fill it. In less than the blink of a moment, the tightened stream snapped—curling and twisting as it whip-lashed the wayward arrow, incinerating it. In the same nanosecond, it smacked aside the hapless archer and twined its way about his screaming form. The searing red snake coiled 'round his body in an total crucible, blackening him, baking him, until it whirled up, around, and off the body, winding tighter mid-air, closing into a toothpick, and then winking out of this world.

Three bodies fell to the floor when that second finally came to an end. Samirol dropped to his knees—his legs fluid, and his heart trembling, but still alive, through and through. The archer's corpse fell on its back, crashing dead to the flame-charred earth, steaming, and burnt beyond edibility. And Zach—exhausted, overwhelmed, and completely horrified—collapsed in a heap, quickly shuffled off to sleep on the dark trails of unconsciousness.

"Flight, fire-breathing, and magic?" Jaynem asked—rhetorically, of course, and with a grin of total satisfaction. "Maybe you aren't a complete waste of life, after all."

"Th-th—" was all Samirol was able to get out before falling to his knees, more overwhelmed by the knowledge that he was going to live, than he had been by his worries that he wouldn't.

"Bentham, Lanaym," Jaynem said, addressing the two, non-smoldering archer, "pick up Gwin and dump him in the incinerator—and be quick about it." The Prince pointed his finger at the charred mound that had once been Gwin.

The two archers replied wordlessly. Together, they grabbed hold of the crackled-black corpse, and walked off, carrying it between themselves, letting its arms sling over their shoulders. Jaynem puckered his nose at the smell of bits of charred skin flaking off the corpse as the archers carried it away; he turned to Samirol once more.

"Samirol: wake my dragon as soon as possible, feed him, and take him to the stalls—the military stalls. It seems that we shall be doing this your way, for now. I expect you to continue to personally supervise his training until he his skilled enough to being working with me, directly," Jaynem said. "Do I make myself clear?" he added, raising an eyebrow.

Samirol tried to say "Yes", but it came out as a hiccup.

"Good," Jaynem said. "See to it, then."

And so—being quite pleased with the morning's accomplishments—Jaynem walked off to the Palace Baths for a well-deserved nap, floating in comfort atop the world's largest heated, indoor pool. For the first time in his life, the Prince felt positively giddy. Samirol's claims about Zach's power had been correct, after all. He was going to be able to kill his father, and Gazann, far, far earlier than he had ever anticipated; he was one step closer to the throne.

If Jaynem had known any songs, he would have almost certainly started humming them.


[1] This is a shameless reference to Lewis Carrol's Through the Looking Glass. There's a free, non-corporeal, non-consumable cookie in it for you if you can figure out where this reference occurs. And no using internet search engines—that's cheating!

[2] "Get on with it" is a shameless reference to Monty Python's Flying Circus. If you haven't watched their stuff, I highly recommend you do so. The "Dead Parrot" sketch, the "Spanish Inquisition" sketch, the "Argument Clinic" sketch, the "Ministry of Silly Walks" sketch—they're all classics of weird comedy.


Revision History:

(1/16/2013): Edited a few mistakes—thanks to Amy B. R. Mead for pointing them out. Also, added text describing more details about the muscular capacities of Zach's nostrils, the silliness of Zach's first flying attempt, Samirol's advice to Zach, and about Zach figuring out how to turn mid-air. (~ 373 words)

(12/21/2012): A few edits here and there; thanks to VelvetyCheerio for pointing out some silly little mistakes of mine.

(11/11/2012): Tiny edit.

(11/4/2012): Added Zach drinking from the pool; also, added the disposal of the body, and, made Samirol NOT fall unconscious at the end of the chapter (~ 377 words).

All story content Copyright 2012; MCS