Before the Time of Witches, in the lands that would come to be known as the Babese Sultanate, there existed a primeval age of Dragon Gods.
“The Dragon God will save us!” insisted the Dragon Priest, Francisco Vicenze, leader of the village of Magmum.
The Magmites were up in arms.
“Oh, will he now?”
“What’s he going to do about my dead fields?”
“We need a new Dragon Priest!”
“How’s he going to stop the Barbars from nicking all our stuff?”
“We barely fended them off last time! If they come again, they’ll take everything!”
“How’s he going to fix the disease running rampant among my livestock?”
“I’ve only a sheep and a half left!”
“How’s he going to stop the volcano going off again like last month?”
“Is he going to help rebuild our homes?”
“What d’you think he can possibly do about our crops?” demanded José Yataya, a farmer, an envoy from his father sent to demand answers. “Nothing will grow anymore – not wheat, not barley, not corn – and if it continues on much longer, we’ll all be starving to death! What is Nebuchadnezzar going to do about that?”
“Nebuchadnezzar,” said Francisco Vicenze slowly in a stately manner, drawing himself up and smoothing the lilac robes that set him apart from the crowd, who generally wore homespun tunics and trousers, “is punishing us for our lack of devotion. He is, however, capable of solving all our problems, no matter how myriad they may be. He is a God, after all. He can will miracles into existence. I saw it – in my youth.”
José wondered how long ago that had been. Vicenze was a skeleton of a man with earth-toned skin clinging to his skull like wet parchment and claws for fingers at the end of bony arms. He was strict, abstemious and stern. In other words, he was not often invited to parties. He would have turned his large nose up at them anyway. They were, in his opinion, a waste of time. Anything but devoutly worshipping the Great Nebuchadnezzar, the One True Dragon God, was a waste of his time. He looked ridiculous in that feathered headdress, thought José. Having seen nineteen summers, José regarded the old as do all youths; like aliens, as if they were a whole other species entirely anathema.
He joined in with the others for a while longer, standing in the dirt street and yelling at the Dragon Priest in the village centre, where the man had a garishly painted wooden dais on which to make announcements. Finally, Francisco Vicenze made his apologies and scurried off like a rat in lilac, nominally to meditate with mighty Nebuchadnezzar in his home itself, the smoking volcano looming over the village of Magmum. The God would, he promised, solve all their problems. José had believed him for a long time. Now, he was not so sure.
He waved to the Dragon Priest’s daughter, Mia Vicenze, and she waved back, gauzy pale blue shawl billowing in the wind. Slowly sifting through the crowd while he longed to shove everyone aside, he made his way towards her and she towards him. They embraced upon meeting, and he kissed her deeply. Her lips were warm and soft, seeming to complement his own perfectly.
“I missed you,” he said. “I’m almost glad of the excuse to come into town. Almost. I do wish it were under better circumstances.”
“I know,” she said, holding his hands. “Times are hard. We have had reports from all corners of farmers’ crops failing, withering away. Father has been trying to reach the volcano top for weeks to commune with the Dragon God, but he cannot get close on account of the lava, the heat and the fumes. He has gone to try again. I fear he’ll get himself killed up there – or addled. I swear those fumes are driving him mad.”
“Times are hard,” José agreed, squeezing her fingers. “They have been ever since the eruption. D’you think it’s true that the Dragon God is punishing us? Why would he do that?”
“My father says it’s because we have not been showing the God the proper respect. In times past, the entire village would worship at the top of the volcano. Now, my father goes alone.”
“What kind of a cruel God would send such a travesty as an eruption to us, killing our loved ones with fire, smoke and ash? What kind of God would allow such things to happen? Is he even worth worshipping?”
She bit her lip. “I have wondered such things myself. My father says we must have faith, that everything happens for a reason.”
José shook his head. “I used to think so, but now …” He sighed.
“We must have faith,” she reiterated more strongly, her round open face captivating. “I must believe there is something out there greater than myself. If not … if all is random, then where is the meaning?”
“Maybe we make it ourselves.”
She shook her head. “Have you met some people? People cannot be trusted with their own destinies!”
José chuckled. “I don’t know how you manage to make existentialism funny, but you do.” He kissed her. “Come with me. I want to show you something.”
They walked hand in hand out of the village, towards the volcano.
“Where are you taking me?” she asked.
“I was out exploring yesterday, checking out other farms to see if they were suffering as much as we are, and I spotted something I just had to show you.”
When they began to climb the base of the volcano, she said, “Are we following my father to the top?”
“No, no,” he assured her. “It’s just here. See?” He pointed to a small green-leafed plant with red berries growing out of a volcanic black rock. “This is solidified lava,” he said. “You’d think nothing would grow here – just like the farms – but look! Already, life has found a way to thrive. Isn’t that incredible?”
She nodded, eyes wide. “It’s a miracle.”
He smiled, seeing her enthrallment. “Perhaps everything does happen for a reason.”
They stayed by the plant until dusk, and when the rays started to dim, they kissed goodbye. Mia headed back to the village, and José returned to his father’s farm.
Two days later, he was awakened shortly after falling asleep by a banging on the door of his father’s shack. Sleepily cracking the portal, he laid eyes on his friend from the village, Antonio, garbed in a woollen cloak, tunic and breeches.
“José,” gasped Antonio, out of breath, “you must come quick! Old Francisco’s abandoned his senses! He’s gone raving mad, I say! The villagers were in uproar over the dying crops again, and some were even talking about replacing the Dragon Priest! So, old Francisco panics and he says, ‘You are right, good people, it is time we showed the Dragon God proper devotion again by providing him with a sacrifice. And to prove I am devoted, to prove I am worthy of being your Dragon Priest, I will sacrifice my own daughter to the great deity!’ Then, the brutes in town – you know, the militia – grabbed Mia, hefted her on their shoulders and started carrying her towards the volcano, chanting praises to Nebuchadnezzar all the way! I tried to stop them, I really did, but they were serious, José. They gave me this.” Antonio rolled up his bloody tunic sleeve to expose a nasty gash on his arm. “They said if I tried to stop them again, they’d kill me, so I came straight here. I’m sorry I couldn’t do more, José, truly.”
“No, no,” replied José, brain numbed and racing at the same time, stuck in limbo. “You did plenty. Thank you for telling me. Tell my father what happened. He’ll get you patched up. I have to go to the volcano!”
Grabbing a cloak, he was out of the door and across the fields at a sprint. The journey to the volcano took a couple of hours at walking pace. José made it in under an hour.
Gasping in lungfuls of hot smoke and coughing, he began the climb up the volcano. From its peak, he could hear drums beating and rhythmic chanting over the sound of his own thundering heart. Mia was to be his wife. He had already decided to ask her at the next summer solstice festival. Now, imagining life without her, he could not move fast enough. The thought of life without her was a yawning void, an empty meaningless duration of time in which he would exist unhappily until finally he could join her in the Dragon God’s fiery paradise, Tlalocan. The thought of never seeing her again tore at his insides like knives, until his brain buzzed with anger.
By the time he reached the top of the volcano, he was vibrating with rage all over. The village must be deserted, he realised. Everyone was here, chanting in unison with such fervour and volume that their cries seemed to reverberate off the skies and echo around the entire plateau. Mia’s arms were restrained by two bulky men. She looked beautiful in the light of the arcing thunderbolts, dark skin glimmering, raven hair cascading down to her shoulders, loose. José’s own hair was plastered to his brow by the rain. The drums were near deafening, but still José heard the thunder as a storm rolled in.
The drums ceased.
“Good people of Magmum,” hollered Francsisco Vicenze at the top of his lungs, his voice powerful and booming, “we are gathered here today to worship the Dragon God, almighty Nebuchadnezzar, who lives in the depths of this fiery mountain! Together, we will pay him homage by sacrificing the life of one of our own to show our devotion! To prove that I am the most devout of all, I have chosen to sacrifice that which is dearest to my heart – my own daughter, Mia!”
The crowd of villagers roared its approval, punching the sky and cheering and applauding. José felt sick. He shoved past everyone in his path, careless of the shouts of irritation directed his way. One big bearded man shoved him back, and he punched the man in the mouth, knocking him down. People moved out of his way after that. He barely felt the fire in his knuckles. His entire body was ablaze.
He halted in front of the militia, those who volunteered to protect the village in times of crisis, when they pointed spears and clubs at him. He had always thought them virtuous folk. Now, he hated the sight of them between him and Francisco.
“What in the name of all that is good d’you think you’re doing, Francisco?” he bellowed, tenor voice ragged with passion. “How can you even consider killing your own daughter just to show devotion? We gave up such barbaric practices years ago, you madman!”
“And that is precisely why we are being punished!” shrieked Francisco, eyes wide, bloodshot and crazed. “Because we have failed to show the Dragon God the proper respect!”
“If he truly demands this, then he is not worthy of our respect or devotion,” snarled José, “but since no such demand has come from on high, I must instead assume that all this is a result of your own cowardice and paranoia! Antonio told me about the villagers threatening to replace you! You’re just afraid to lose your position, your own respect and devotion, and so you have come up with this harebrained scheme! Stop this madness at once, Francisco, I implore you! It is not too late! That is your daughter, man, the love of my life!”
“Blasphemy!” screeched the Dragon Priest, pointing a shaking finger. “Kill the heretic!”
José was not worried – at first. He knew everyone in the village, had known them his entire life. He was one of them. He was sure they would not turn on him. And yet ... the militia were stalking towards him purposefully, shoulders hunched and weapons levelled. He turned to regard the villagers and saw not one face he recognised. The faces had all been warped by fear and hatred into unfamiliar masks, as if they were complete strangers. That was when he felt the cold touch of fear on his spine. Francisco was not the only who had become unhinged, he realised, and these people would tear him apart limb from limb for his lack of devotion if they thought it was contributing to their gradual demise. He could see it in their alien eyes. He began to tremble. He was unarmed, stuck between the militia and the townsfolk with no escape, and all were drawing in on him like a tightening noose.
“Let her go!” he yelled at the militia. “Mia is innocent! Let her go, damn your eyes!”
The militia did not respond, only pressed forward. Letting loose a howl of inarticulate anger, José threw himself at the armed men. He was no fighter, though. Taking pity on the scrawny unarmed youth, the muscled men only beat him to the ground with their clubs and the hafts of their spears. By the time the blows stopped raining down on him, José was curled up in a mewling bruised ball on the ground.
He thought at first that he was shaking violently from the intoxicating medley of fear, wrath and pain. Then, he realised it was not him. The ground was shaking beneath him, barely noticeably to begin with, but growing more and more pronounced with every heartbeat. The villagers and militia noticed it, too, and glanced down in alarm at the visibly juddering black rock beneath their feet as thunder cracked like a whip overhead.
As the volcano trembled more and more, Francisco shouted, “It’s going to erupt! Everyone, run!”
The villagers started to scatter like cockroaches, but the juddering intensified to such an extent then that they were all thrown from their feet. Gazing up from their backs, the villagers stared in awe at the mouth of the volcano as copious smoke billowed up into the stormy sky. Little flecks of lava shot up into the firmament, preceding the birth of a leviathan from the ground. Bit by bit, a monster pulled itself up out of the depths of the burning hot volcano, dripping with lava and stinking of sulphur. First, claws appeared over the rim, and then a long snout full of long sharp fangs. Next came feelers and serpentine eyes, yellow and slitted, in a scaly golden face. Then, a maned neck, long and sinuous, that continued, snakelike, into a long tubular body. More claws brought the creature up into the surface world, and its scaly wings unfurled as it breathed fire into the heart of the tempest. Its roar was so loud that it rattled the skulls of those that heard it, and its every stomp created a small quake, for the creature was some fifty feet long.
“Who dares to awaken me?” the Dragon demanded, her voice drowning the thunder.
READ THE OTHER HALF OF THE DRAGON GOD FOR FREE BY SIGNING UP TO MY MAILING LIST!