How does one become a Dragon?
Disclaimer: I don't own Dragon Knights. I don't own Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time either, for all that I'm borrowing shamelessly from it. The title, minus a word or two, is from a Leonard Cohen album, which I also do not own. Thanks for letting me play, guys~
"You don't have to do this if you don't want to," Lykouleon says. To anyone else he would have done a good job of composing himself, but Tetheus can see every line of tension etched in his face; hear the slightest undertone of panic in his voice. What will they do if he says no? Lykouleon wants him to do this, needs him desperately to, and so he nods simply in reply and Lykouleon gives him a small, thankful smile and lets the door close behind them.
A white-robed mage bars the door and leads them down a dark corridor. Kai-stern's lone candle is their only light source but it's more than enough for his eyes. The walls down here are different, closer, the stone clammy and cold, as if moss grows there. They had blindfolded him when they first brought him down the stairs, but he can tell by the heavy earthiness in the air that they're in the bowels of the castle, below even the dungeons, following paths untouched by other feet for many years. Everything is quiet, so quiet, except for the shuffling of their feet and the occasional dripping of water somewhere. There's not even the smallest scratching of rats, or any evidence of life. Perhaps that's why no one speaks.
It feels... sacred.
The mage stops in front of an old wooden door, fortified by iron and protected by three massive locks. Alfeegi steps forward and unwraps from a cloth a ring of keys; in the candlelight he sees rust flaking off them. He turns each one in its lock carefully with a gentleness unlike him, his mouth taut with the same anxiety that seems to be infecting everybody. Ruwalk can barely seem to keep still, hopping nervously from foot to foot and glancing around as if he expects something to pounce on them at any second. Kai-stern, pale in daylight, looks like a ghost, and the flickering candle dyes his skin weirdly golden. Only the mage, inscrutable beneath his hood, is composed.
The door swings open with a long drawn-out creak, as if it's stretching after being still so long. He doesn't know what it is that's so special about this room, hidden away underneath the castle, but they all file in, one by one, and Alfeegi bars the door after them again. His finely-tuned senses are tingling, every nerve in his body on red alert, and the reptile voice in the back of his brain is telling him to run, run far, far away as fast as he can from the Dragon Clan and their strange rituals.
He stands firm.
"You can still say no," Lykouleon says, but his eyes are pleading. In answer, he steps forward and unbuckles his sword belt, just as they had outlined to him aboveground. Ruwalk takes his sword from him; he unbuttons his jacket, and his shirt, trousers and jewellery join it. Everything he owns, everything that has meant something to him -his sword, a necklace of bones that marks his kills, trophies of battles won- reduced to a small pile on the ground, destined for the incinerator where they will be burnt and the ashes buried deep, deep under the ground. He stands before them as naked as the day he was born, as befits the night he will be /re/born.
"It begins," the mage intones, and Kai-stern snuffs the candle.
It's dark. Not simply dim, but absolutely black. His searching eyes cannot pierce the darkness and for a few seconds the cold fingers of panic have him in their grasp as a hundred half-memories of remembered fear come flooding in, overwhelming rational thought and he runs blindly, colliding with walls, hands clutching for anything solid in the yawning blackness. But there is nothing, and in his madness he falls. The firmness of flagstone beneath his knees brings him back to himself and he does a simple mediation exercise to calm himself, one of the first he'd learned, and his heartbeat slows to normal. The familiarity is comforting; the rush of reptile fear retreats and he is able to stand again.
The darkness is part of the test. He can't have moved far away so the others should be nearby, but somehow he doesn't think they are in the same room anymore. He cannot sense their presence. Either they have moved, or he has.
Regardless, standing still will get him nowhere so he walks carefully ahead, mindful of the traps the room may have in store for him. The walls of crumbling stone seem to curve under his fingertips. He's heading into a tunnel of some sort and there's light breaking ahead, so bright that even from this far away it cuts through the relentless press of the darkness. He has no idea what time it is anymore. Twilight had fallen when they met aboveground; how long had the journey below taken them? Dawn must be still hours away. The room, the darkness, is disquieting, disorientating, so he keeps moving towards the light, towards answers.
It begins to hurt his eyes long before he gets there, a perfect cone of silver and white streaming through, slicing the darkness into ribbons. Intellectually he knows he hasn't been walking that long and he shouldn't have reached it already, but space and time seem to operate differently down here. He shields his eyes -it's bright enough to blind him; even after covering his eyes he sees white on the back of his eyelids- and steps through. It's warm and viscous, almost gel-like, but he passes through easily.
He's in a clearing. It's not any part of the castle he knows; he's not at the castle anymore. He turns around cautiously, staking out his surroundings, suspicion sharpening his senses. Soft grass beneath his feet, sunlight breaking through the tree cover: he's on the edges of a small wood. Curls of smoke are coming from somewhere in the distance, so there's some type of habitation. He moves towards that, hoping to see another person. It seems a long time since he left the others behind, and it's so unnaturally quiet. No birds sing, no animals move through the brush, and the only sound is the crunching of leaves and twigs underneath his feet. A breeze rustles the branches, but it doesn't seem to touch him. He should feel cold, but instead he feels invisible, transparent; as if he's not really there at all, a phantom.
The path leads him out of the forest, to a small white-washed house with a thatched roof. It's just like many other human houses he's seen over the centuries, but it jogs dormant memories in his mind of a long time ago, a place burned indelibly into his mind. He knows what will happen here. He wants to move but his feet are as rooted to the soil as the trees are. He wants to close his eyes or turn away, but this is what he was brought here to watch.
A small girl comes out with a skipping rope. Time wavers unsteadily for a moment, like a gramophone skipping. She's jumping, singing some childish song to herself. Something near him in the forest rustles. She stops and looks towards the woods, a hint of fear beginning to show in her eyes.
He forces himself to watch what comes next, although he could have played back every movement with his eyes closed. The thing comes out of the bushes so fast she doesn't have time to scream before it rips her throat out, splattering the path with blood as her life seeps out of her into the soil. Neither the girl nor the feeding demon notice his presence which confirms his suspicion that he isn't really here. His physical body is probably still back there with the others.
And then the demon turns, looking at the exact spot he's standing and for a moment he thinks it can see him. It sniffs as if it can smell his scent and growls like he could if an intruder were enroaching on his kill. He stands absolutely still, willing himself not to move. Somehow he knows he can be killed in this form, and he were to die now, all would be lost.
The demon still looks suspicious, but puts its head down and begins to drag its victim back into the forest. Her straw-coloured hair hangs limply, her small face frozen in terror and covered with blood, and he watches until they disappear into the brush.
He hadn't realized he was doing it, but when he uncurls his fists there are half-moons marked on his palms in blood.
Abruptly, he's inside again. It's not the dragon castle, but another he recognizes and knows intimately. The macabre hangings on the wall pronounce it the Kainaldian stronghold. Nadil's fort, which was his home at one time.
His feet take him down a stairwell. He doesn't want to go but it's like some greater force is directing him; he can't control where he goes. Down another set of stairs carved out of rock. Unlike the dragon castle, it gets hotter as he goes further down, and a thin sheen of sweat gleams on his skin. He stops at a thick iron door. It's locked, but it swings open for him easily, like a giant unseen hand has pushed it open.
It's another dungeon, but it's nothing like the one at the dragon castle. As soon as he steps through the door waves of pain crash onto him, thick and solid, almost forcing him to his knees until he reminds himself that it isn't a physical object, although it feels like it. He's been down here many times and his memory of it is still as sharp as the cruel, wicked curves of the blades hanging from the wall. It's a place of fear and blood and rotting evil. Pain is the foundation Nadil's castle is built on, and the dungeon is full of it. A wheelbarrow of red straw sits by the door waiting to be emptied. He studiously avoids looking any closer.
As he passes by the iron bars of the cells people inside them cry out, ragged screams and hopeless whimpers. They're not crying out to him -of course, they can't see him- but nevertheless he wants to stop, even though he's not sure he could open the doors in his current form. And that's not what he's been brought here for, anyway. So he keeps walking forward with the chorus of their cries in the back of his head. It's all part of the test, part of his punishment.
His feet stop at the last cell. The floor is sticky, and when he looks in he sees why. A dragon-eared man hangs limply in his shackles, too far gone to even flinch away when the blade bites into flesh once again. There's so much blood; he'd forgotten how much blood a body could hold; even when you thought you'd bled them dry you could usually coax the wound into welling again; other species did cling to their lives so desperately even when they knew all was lost...
No! He shakes his head, trying to chase the thoughts away. Those aren't his thoughts; they haven't been for a long time. As if it could somehow sense this, the background changes again and he's inside another house, richly panelled in oak and carpeted in plush red, and bile burns up the back of his throat. The other scenes were bad enough; he doesn't want to watch this again...
But he has to, of course. So he stands uselessly as first the father goes down and then the mother, and only then does the screaming start, terrible, piercing echoes that hurt his ears and throat and make him want to roll into a ball to protect himself from the onslaught. Why had he taken the children as well? So senseless, so much waste...
He's on a battlefield, his sword running with blood. That day he had killed his first lieutenant because he was irritated at the rain.
A scared young woman is running for her life down a dark, narrow street. He'd stalked her until she ran out of wind because he liked the blind fear in her eyes when she looked back, and then he'd let her think she'd lost him for a little while, a small respite, just enough to get her breath back and let herself think she was safe until he got bored and caught her.
A darkened room, moonlight glinting off steel. His own younger brother for god's sake; was there anyone he had left alive? Over and over again, he's forced to watch himself performing unspeakable deeds, helpless to do anything to change anything as history re-enacts himself again and again until the images run red before his eyes flickerflickerflicker bloodknifepainscreamhurtcryhelp
His head is exploding, bones being crunched together; it feels like his skull is going to crack under the pressure. Gravity forces him slowly to his knees until he's sprawling prone on the ground. He can't breathe; blood is dripping into his eyes, his mouth, choking him. Invisible weight presses him to the ground, like he's being crushed under a giant's boot. All those innocent people... Their sad faces line up before him, accusing him, and he cannot move. There is no forgiveness or gentleness in the hard, blood-covered lines of their faces.
"I'm sorry," he chokes out through the constriction in his throat. So sorry. "Forgive me. Never again."
The pressure relents slightly, enough for him to raise his head off the ground. They're still circling him like vultures, but their faces are watery, less substantial.
He'd sworn off killing before Lykouleon had found him, after what happened to Shydeman and Shyrendora. He'd tried to make up for his past sins in small ways, however he could, but their memories never leave him; he sees them in the darkness, in visceral flashes at the sight of blood. As long as the longing for flesh is in his soul, however deeply-buried, he will never be free of their spectres, he knows.
Their faces turn terrible for an instant, eyes flashing red, mouths horribly distended to reveal bloodied fangs. "Remember," they hiss, and then wink out of existence as surely as if they had never been there at all.
He's free. His body suddenly goes limp and he feels as weak as a week-old kitten, his blood has turned into water. He can't even move; his body is not listening to his signals. Somehow he's returned to the black room -or had he ever truly left it?- and now that the adrenaline is beginning to fade, he's starting to shiver.
A pinprick of light in the darkness is moving towards him. "Tetheus!" Lykouleon calls. "Are you okay?"
He can't even muster the energy to reply to that. Lykouleon and Ruwalk help him up and Alfeegi throws a robe over him. The mage leads them back out of the room, the slamming and bolting of the door a final knell upon his past, and up back into the castle proper.
"How do you feel?" Lykouleon asks anxiously in the hospital wing. "Are you injured at all?"
"No," he replies simply. This much is true. He is not physically injured; he can move all his limbs, nothing is broken or sprained or even bruised. What's affecting him is something else entirely.
"We might save the welcome party until you're feeling up to it," Ruwalk says from his position leaning against the doorframe, and everyone smiles. "Man, I'm glad I never had to do that."
Time seems to stop then, and it's a few seconds until he can clear his throat to speak. "That was not a ritual every Officer goes through?"
Suddenly the room is filled with embarrassed coughing and shuffling and throat-clearing. Alfeegi flushes. "Well, no, it's only for those of non-Dragon heritage, but I assure you that you were perfectly safe; there was no real danger otherwise we wouldn't have-"
"You know," Ruwalk interrupts loudly, "I think Kai-stern could explain this to you really well, so we'll just be going, shall we?" He yanks Alfeegi on the way out, who looks disgruntled but allows Ruwalk to pull him along after him. Lykouleon gives him a small smile before taking his own leave and closing the door behind him.
"Welcome to the Dragon Tribe," Kai-stern says, heavy with irony. "Do you want to get out of here?"
He leans heavily on Kai-stern as they make their way back to the-his quarters now. Kai-stern is much smaller than him but he takes his weight uncomplainingly. That's good, because he doesn't think he could walk otherwise, and as it is, it's lucky it's only a short walk. Kai-stern helps him sit on his bed, supernovas exploding in his head at even those small movements.
Kai-stern's kneeling at his feet to unlace his boots and he wants to protest, but there's no way he could get them off himself in his current state. "How bad is it?" he asks, with the quiet familiarity of someone who has known the same pain.
It's agonizing. It feels like every bone, every cell, is being fleshed anew again. His skin burns and itches, like it's suddenly a size too small for him and threatening to burst apart at the seams. Tetheus has had his guts sewn back together more times than he would like to count and had bone fever twice and nothing has ever felt like this before.
It's hard even just to focus his eyes, and Kai-stern's image is blurry. "You... did this," he manages unsteadily.
"Had to. They don't let non-Dragon types join their club." It's like being underwater - every sound wavers, as if it's coming from very far away. He hears the twin thuds of his boots being tossed aside. "It gets better after a while. The first few weeks are weird, but you get used to it." He laughs, and it sounds a little bitter. "Sometimes I forget and it's only when I look in the mirror and see my ears that I remember."
Kai-stern helps him lie down. He feels like he's about to vomit, so he doesn't move an inch, but lies as still as the dead. He feels cold, but he's sweating like he's just run a marathon and his vision is going haywire. He can't even see Kai-stern anymore, just a Kai-stern-shaped smudge.
"What were you?" he asks.
He's silent for so long, Tetheus thinks he must have left the room until someone covers him with a blanket. "I was human," his voice says softly, perhaps sadly, weighted down by memory. Chair legs scrape across the floorboards. "You should sleep. I'll be here if you need anything."
Sleep. He closes his eyes and the pain recedes slightly. Someone grips his hand and blessed darkness claims him.