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The Tale of the Dragon King
The end was nigh. Our ancestors learned to cheat Death, and so left us with this foolishness to live and never learn, until this moment. Under a faded brown sky, I solemnly gazed out upon my kingdom, once a grand utopia of brilliant marble architecture and invention the likes of which other lands may only dream of. Our proud constructs now crumbled in the ruinous breeze, raining white and gold debris into the streets below, to the horror of the masses. Each one wore a unique look of fear, sadness, and hopelessness, as they looked to their Queen. Mere days ago, I had addressed the crowd for the opening of a festival. I had talked with them, eaten with them, even danced with the children. But in the face of our inevitable demise, what could I do?
“Kiala,” the voice of my mother called me from the balcony. “It isn’t safe.”
I reluctantly stepped back into the castle. The lavishness of this place now felt as if it were mocking me. You will be buried in your wealth and stature.
“Mother, the people need me. What am I supposed to do?”
“You are not supposed to do anything. Isn’t it plain to see? We are finished.” She sighed, the life in her eyes faded. She moved to her seat, and motioned me to take mine. I sat. If this was truly the end of us, then there was nothing to be done.
But it didn’t feel right, waiting for it surrounded by gold and jewels. Ours was a world of beauty, but it seemed so pointless. I couldn’t get the image of the crowd out of my head.
“Did you see them, too?” I asked.
“I caught a few faces, yes.” She raised an eyebrow. “Why do you ask?”
“Well, they seemed afraid. It looked like they wanted me to at least say something.”
“My dear, what is there to say? By the end of this day, there will be nothing left of us.” She slowly shook her head, moving as if burdened by a heavy weight.
“But I saw them, Mother. They were crowding the plaza. Like they were waiting for me to give a speech.”
“Then give a speech. Do as you please, it doesn’t matter anymore,” she snapped, with a dismissive wave of the hand.
“I-is something the matter?”
“Nothing, dear. The kingdom is falling and the centuries I’ve lived will all be for nothing. I’m perfectly fine.”
We sat in silence. I thought I could hear voices in the distance, but I dismissed them as just my imagination. Again, the mental picture of the crowd came back to haunt me.
I turned to Mother. “This is happening because we cheated Death, right?”
“Right. Long, long ago, we were mortal. We would grow old and die. But humanity was afraid of death, and all kinds of people tried to find a way to cheat Death. There were those who learned how to create medicines and cure diseases that had once killed so many. Remember that cough you had when you were little?”
“Of course I remember. I wanted to go out and play, but I had to stay inside for so long.”
“That may have seemed horrible to you, but you didn’t have to worry about dying because someone figured out how to treat it. But there were still many ways people could die. Humanity learned that its greatest enemy was itself. Over the course of history, men found new, more powerful ways of killing those that they considered a threat. They created weapons of such power, they could only describe it as ‘magic’.”
“Magic?” I thought of the spells taught to me in my childhood. Most were for practical use, like moving heavy objects or protecting one’s self from the cold in winter. A few could be dangerous, but could they really be used for war?
“Yes, these magic weapons were capable of destroying entire cities. A war with them could devastate the whole world.”
“Cities? The world? How could something so destructive even exist?”
Mother laughed. “Mankind asked that question themselves soon after creating those weapons. They didn’t want to use them, but they were afraid to not have them either. So the kingdoms of mankind each kept theirs, to make each other afraid of attacking them. But eventually, this led to an era of peace.”
“Peace? But they were all afraid of each other.”
“There weren’t any wars, and so they called it peace. But then, all that ended when-“
The great doors burst open and my brother stumbled through. He was breathing heavily, his eyes wide. The two guards behind him stayed at the door.
“Kilion!” Mother rushed to his side. His hair was matted with blood. He struggled to stand. I helped lift him to his feet and walk him to a seat.
He laughed. “It’s the end of the world out there.”
“So you were telling her the story of how we all got in this mess,” Kilion said, trying not to touch the bandages on his head.
“I need to know why this is happening. And if I can do anything,” I said.
“She’s delusional,” Mother said, “But I suppose it’s the least we can do.”
“For keeping her cooped up in this place for most of her life,” Kilion added. “I thought if there was ever a time you’d let her go out, now would be it.”
I cast a sideways glance at Mother. “I intend to go out there soon enough.”
The smile left Kilion’s face. “I was joking. Don’t go out there. Please.” He looked to his guards. They urgently closed the doors.
“What’s out there?” I asked. I heard a muffled roar and felt the floor slightly rumble.
“Lots of things,” he said. “Well now, I have nothing better to do other than trying to not bleed to death. Let’s continue this incredibly appropriate story time.”
“She was about to tell me how the peace – that I don’t really think is peace – ended.”
“Ah, war. My specialty.”
“You’ve never been in a war.”
“And you say that like it’s a bad thing. I’m hurt. I mean, figuratively and literally. Possibly emotionally considering the situation we’re in, but I’m fine mentally and especially sexually if you know what I’m-“
“Kilion!” Mother and I shouted at once. I blinked. Despite everything that was happening outside, it almost felt like it was all just a nightmare. Like we were kids again, hiding from a thunderstorm.
Kilion absently scratched the back of his head in embarrassment. “Anyways, you’re right, Kiala. It wasn’t really peace. Everyone was just too afraid of each other to cause problems.” So it was only a matter of time before everything collapsed.”
“No one’s been able to figure out exactly what happened. Different sources all claim different sides that started the destruction, but the one consistent part is the quick escalation of conflict around the world until-“
“Until everyone used the magic weapons,” I finished, my mouth agape. They nodded.
“That’s right, dear. It must have been horrible. But in a twist of fate, the war with those weapons resulted in the knowledge of how to build and use them… to disappear.”
“Is that why there were fewer wars following that?”
“Exactly,” Mother said. “But of course, amidst all that death, the search for eternal life grew all the more desperate. Which leads us to the story of the man who cheated Death, and the beginning of our people.”
Kilion’s eyes lit up. “The Dragon King!”
“It’s not a happy story,” Mother chided.
“I know, but growing up, all the boys loved hearing the story.”
I vaguely remembered seeing Kilion and his friends eagerly crowding around the storytellers. I was always forbidden from attending story time. I was told their stories were unbefitting of a lady. I shook my head. “But that’s all it is, right? A fairy tale.”
“It might seem that way. But among its embellishments and superstition, there are parts that are very much true. And the reason it’s so popular among boys is-“
“The Dragon King was just a boy, but he became a… hero.” Kilion hesitated a moment as he said ‘hero’. If this legendary figure really is the one responsible for our ultimate demise, then I would also have a difficult time calling him a hero.
Mother gestured to my brother. “Kilion, you seem so enthusiastic about it, I’ll let you tell the story.”
“Well, okay.” A wide grin dared to spread across his face, and he shifted his weight back and forth. He was utterly failing at containing his enthusiasm. “A long time ago, there was a boy who came upon another who was badly injured. Outlaws surrounded him and tried to kill him, but the injured boy cast a spell on him, and a marking appeared on his arm. The marking let him do powerful magic and fight back against the outlaws! The boy then took the other home and took care of him. The two became quick friends, but he disappeared one night. So the boy with the marking spent his life helping others and trying to find out where his friend went. He came to the capital city, and happened to find his friend. And it turns out, he was the prince! So the boy got invited to the castle-“
“This all seems pretty far-fetched to me,” I interrupted. “Mother, is any of this really true?”
Mother sighed. “Whether or not everything in the story is true, we do know that King Myria had an old friend in a kingdom across the mountains he would write letters to. And as for the marking, look there.” She pointed to the statues of the previous rulers. Each golden effigy was crafted with painstaking detail, including the one at the far end. The only queen in a line of kings. I looked over them once again. They, we, all stood with the same pose with right hand outstretched and left hand held behind back.
“The left arm,” I whispered. Instinctively, I rolled up my sleeve to look at my arm. Nothing out of the ordinary. Mother laughed. Was it just my imagination, or was there a hint of worry in her voice?
“You’ve got it. The marking in the story is the Brand of the Dragon. Every heir to the throne is given the Brand when they reach adulthood. And though its appearance has gradually changed over generations, the Brand is the very symbol of Myria.”
“Anyways,” Kilion eagerly interrupted, “the prince’s friend became one of the kingdom’s most beloved men, for always helping people out. They called him a hero, and his courage and kindness were greatly rewarded. But the king, the prince’s father, was afraid of the hero’s power and popularity, and tried to have him killed. He tricked the hero into going on a dangerous march deep into enemy territory across the mountains, where he was almost sure to die. The young man knew about this trap, but he didn’t want to leave his comrades to die alone, so he made a promise to the prince that they would always be friends, and set off on the march. And when they came across the enemy, the hero turned into a dragon and-“
“Okay, now I really don’t believe this.” I turned to Mother. There had to be a logical explanation for this. But Mother didn’t even blink. No, it couldn’t be true.
“Mother turned to Kilion. “I think I’ll tell the story from here, thank you.”
“Aw, but I was right at the good part.” He slouched in his chair.
“It may be difficult to believe, but it’s not impossible that the hero indeed turned into a dragon. It was the Brand that did it. But unfortunately, contrary to the story, it’s very unlikely that his comrades were saved. During the transformation, it is difficult to control one’s self. It is considered impossible to reverse it, but nonetheless there was a dragon sighting during that battle and the hero’s story continued.”
My mouth hung open. Mother was saying all this as if she were lecturing me on… well, on something completely normal. Dragons were already such a rare sight that some swear they don’t exist at all, but people turning into them? And if it was the Brand that enabled this transformation… No, this was all too strange. Mother would explain the truth once the story was over, I was sure.
“This hero went on and established his kingdom here, east of the mountains. From there, history refers to him as King Myria. And as you know, King Myria I is recorded to have reigned for 530 years. This was unheard of in the world, and many different stories circulated about how he managed to stay in power, and alive, for so long.”
I shook my head. “You’re going to tell me he actually cheated Death, aren’t you.”
“Not quite. You see, Myria’s friend, the prince of the other kingdom, was the one who gave him the Brand. It was very likely an experimental weapon created at the command of the king, and placed onto his son.”
“A dangerous weapon placed on his own son,” I muttered. What kind of man would do such a thing?
“That weapon, that curse, was taken by Myria, who used it to try and protect others. And so he proudly wore the Brand, even despite knowing its dark origins. And he took full advantage of its power of immortality, to watch this grand kingdom grow.”
Kilion spoke up. “According to the story, the Brand was also a mark proving that Myria was destined to become king. But if our kingdom continued with this tradition by intentionally giving the Brand to the heir when reaching adulthood, why doesn’t Kiala have it?”
Mother sighed. “And so you’ve begun to catch on. I’m sorry, but that’s where the story will end.”
I stood up. “No, something’s not right. There’s something you’re hiding. Why… why tell us all this now, when our entire kingdom is about to end? Why hide all this from me?”
Mother stomped to her feet and glared down at us. “Because your father and I refused to burden either of you with something so horrible. I swore to keep you from it on your father’s deathbed-“
“Wait,” Kilion started, jumping to his feet as well. His balance was off, but he kept his footing. “How did Father die? He was king, he had the Brand. You just said the Brand granted immortality to whoever had it. But he and all the kings of Myria have died and had their heirs take the throne.”
My eyes widened. Things were starting to connect, in a dark, twisted way. “Mother,” I said slowly, “Kilion was denied the throne shortly after Father became bedridden. We were told it was because Kilion wasn’t worthy of the Brand, that he was rejected by Fate. But you said yourself that the Brand is intentionally given to the heir. So Kilion was intentionally refused the Brand and the throne by you and Father. And you appointed me as ruler, even though this would be the first time Myria would be ruled by a queen. And you hid from me all these things I should have known years ago. I think… I think the Brand really is a curse on Myria. It doesn’t just make you immortal, it does something else. Something horrible that’s been kept a closely guarded secret of the royal family for so long. You know what it is, don’t you?”
Mother jabbed a bony finger at me. “You’re a foolish girl who knows nothing! Now sit down and stay put while everything disappears. You don’t know what it’s like to outlive life itself, to watch others die as you go on without purpose, and to watch a loved one live forever beside you, slowly losing themselves until…” She began to cry.
Kilion bit his lip. “Kiala, what are you getting at? You’re saying they did all this, and are letting everyone die, because they’re trying to protect us from something worse than death?”
“Yes. It’s a weapon with the power to destroy an entire city, something a kingdom like ours wouldn’t like to use, but keeps because we’re afraid of death.” I slowly rose, then paced back and forth. “Tell me, Kilion… What’s outside?”
Realization hit him, and his eyes widened. “A dragon.”
If I could strain my ears, I could almost hear a low growling amid the distant chaos. I imagined the people running for their lives, hiding from the beast, wondering where their queen was when they needed her. Mother was letting this happen because she didn’t want her own children to suffer. She must have lost all hope when she learned the truth, and so concluded that refusing the cycle was the best course of action. It was understandable. I now knew the truth, the fate I was given because of the fate they had tried to deny. But although I could understand her, I could not agree with her. Motioning for Kilion to follow, I marched to the door.
“What are you doing, Kiala?” Mother cried, tightly gripping my arm.
“I’ve decided to go for a walk, Mother. I might also address the crowd. I won’t be coming back,” I added.
The doors opened to reveal a pale brown sky hanging over a burned mess of marble and gold. People were running every which way, fleeing or helping those who were hurt. In the middle of the chaos was a large beast. It towered over the masses with its dark green scales, flashing its enormous teeth at any who tried to get close.
I walked up to it and looked it in the eyes. Clear, blue eyes. They looked fierce, confused, and afraid. I put my left arm behind my back and stretched out my right hand to touch its snout.
“Kiala!” Kilion shouted, running to my side. The dragon lowered its head toward my hand.
“It’s me, Father,” I said calmly, though my heart was racing. The dragon gave a quiet, low growl that shook the ground.
Leaping from the shadows, a panicked man scrambled towards the dragon. He held a rusted sword out in front of him. “Stay away from the queen, you beast!” Kilion stretched his arm across, blocking the man’s path. He pushed the man back.
“Father, can you give me the Brand?” The dragon’s eyes widened. It slowly moved its head back and forth, refusing.
“Father?” Kilion asked, looking at me as if I were mad.
“Yes, this is Father. It’s… a little hard to explain I think, but… yes.”
“Then give it to me, Father,” Kilion said, imitating my posture. He still had an eyebrow raised at me. Again, the dragon shook its head.
“We know the truth. We know you and Mother wanted to protect us from this curse. But I don’t want to be protected, not if it means everyone else will die. So please, Father, allow me to take the Brand. I’m going to use it to bring back the life of my kingdom. You’ll be able to pass on, and I’ll be a hero, just like the Dragon King.” I tried my best to smile. The dragon paused, then pointed its head down the street. He was going to show me the way.
A crowd had started to gather. I turned to them, seeing the fear and confusion on their faces. “People of Myria,” I said, “We… I am deeply sorry. As your queen, I was unable to protect you in your time of need. I gave in to the idea that if a kingdom needs a ruler, the kingdom only exists to serve them. In truth, I believe the ruler is meant to serve their kingdom. I have failed you, and so I am stepping down from the throne.” A chorus of gasps erupted from the crowd. “I will be going to Fate herself, to request that I be chosen by the Brand of our kingdom, to prove that I am worthy of the throne. And in my absence, Kilion will be your new king, if you will have him.” Kilion turned to me, dumbstruck. The crowd whispered among themselves, struck with confusion and terror. But as they turned to me, I saw the chaos dissipate from them, one by one. And a strange, uplifting scene began. The crowd started to cheer for Kilion. It was a strange sight, seeing them so full of hope in the midst of this destruction. I waved, and walked side by side with my father.
# # #
I lay beneath a blue sky, feeling the softness of the grass beneath me. I can hardly move, but not because the scene is so pleasant. The Brand on my arm radiates the most intense pain I’ve felt in my life. Every waking second, I feel the pain of the rotting, unending life my father and mother prevented from ending. When I am asleep, I dream of death. A man standing above me with his weapon planted in my chest. Death. The dark abyss of the ocean looming below me as I clawed in vain toward the surface. Death. The dim, dank, oppressive aura of a dungeon cell. Death.
I still remember the day centuries ago when I first learned the truth of the Brand, and how I willingly took the curse upon myself. It’s difficult not to look back and think of what I could have spared myself from if I had just listened to Mother.
But in my long, long life, I’ve had the time to watch a children grow, watch them start families, and watch the growth of their own children. Immortality has pulled the curtain back on life. How foolish it is, how fragile it is, but also how irreplaceable it is. When I visit the castle of Myria, I no longer have to disguise myself. Queen Kiala died long ago, sacrificing her life for the prosperity of the kingdom. King Kilion holds feasts as a memorial to me. It’s a strange feeling going to those. People who’ve never met me say the most wonderful things about me. Young girls tell each other exaggerated stories about me. But Kilion still says he prefers the tale of the Dragon King.