Floor 25: Rebellion Plan
Leander's life has been fairly simple today, so I have used the respite to concentrate on my new project: attempting to exert my will upon fate by any means necessary.
I am a very large and powerful dragon now. Although I have exhausted every mundane and directly magical method of circumventing my ban on interfering with Leander's artificial destiny, a dragon of such power levels is not restricted to affecting the world on just one plane. Added to which, I am already part of the construction of this world, giving me a two-way connection to its inner workings. A red dragon is not a master of subtle magic in the same way as a blue dragon but this only makes the use of fate magic difficult for me, not impossible. With enough raw power behind the spell and a little knowledge of exactly where to poke the laws of reality to tweak them, I can still bend fate in the right direction. If I cannot affect Leander, I will affect the world around me in a way that affects Leander.
I am not sure what kind of change I should bring about to test the limits of my powers. Maybe the placement of a simple item, such as a loaf of bread, or one of the bags of gold that Leander panics so much if he doesn't own. Or maybe I could remove an item, such as a monster. But before I can even start to shape that thought, I must connect to the world at a deeper level, the place where the food and gold and monsters are brought into this world, where the laws about their placement are made. At this basic level, everything becomes the same substance.
In the place where the song is sung, every change is just a shift in the music. It is there I need to go: the place where the spirit goes when it surrenders to the music.
Floor 26: Spiritual Surrender
Reasoning that it didn't really make a difference to Leander whether I was able to watch him or not, I closed my eyes and let my other senses take over. I put one foot in front of the other, knowing that I would simply carry on in the path that this world automatically led me. The rhythm of my feet, the swaying of my whole body, fell in line with the music. It had only ever been a breath away, through a veil so gossamer-thin that the tiniest brush of my mind would sweep it aside. It wasn't a case of drowning out my senses. All my senses became more vivid at once, as they connected with their source and drew power directly from it, so that a rainbow of vivid light came flooding in. I could feel the warm roughness of the stone beneath my feet, the caress of a conifer branch, the wind against my face, was though I was part of everything I touched. The magic was an ocean for my third eye to swim through. Above and beyond everything, inside of everything at the most basic level, was the music. Stretching out my claws and my wings, I let go of my hold on anything that was keeping me apart from the music.
And I wasn't following the path any more. I didn't know where I was going but it wasn't in any direction that was possible in the spatial dimensions of the mundane realm. I was standing still, or I was falling through the world, or inside the world, or suspended in its core.
It was such a simple solution, the kind of solution that existed in this nexus filled only with a song. The only option available when the world was forcing you to move in a way that you didn't want to, when it had you trapped in a world where only that path existed, was not to move.
Leander carried on to the next floor. I did not.
Floor 27: Unravelling Fate
Although I can feel instantly (in the form of a gaping loss as though I had just torn my own wings out, muted only by the fact that I have already surrendered to a greater master than pain) that Leander is not here, I know that I am not on the floor as when I closed my eyes and began to listen. I am somewhere further down. It is not the Floor Thirty, and I cannot feel Chronos' presence weighing down on me, as I did when he summoned me, but it is not far off. This is another place, another Floor created solely because I am unexpectedly somewhere else and I need a place constructed for me to be in. It is not the ordered hedges of the Labyrinth, it is a wild, overgrown place, with a stony grey lightning-veined mist that roars its seething fury at me for an offence against the world itself. There were no beasts here, no wondrous artefacts on the floor, only dark mist and chaos and anger.
This was a place where I was not supposed to be.
Suddenly, I felt the terror of a traveller who has strayed from the beaten path and found themselves in a forest full of glowing eyes that snarl and howl at him in the night. I knew that I was dealing with forces that could, and would, unmake me. Then I remembered that I was one of those forces myself, and that dragons were not afraid of wolves.
Stretching my wings, I flew through the mist. I flew over the top of the hedges, high into a dark void where a sky had not been formed, but only motes of pure white light danced and occasionally burned themselves into the canvas of unformed Universe. I knew that flying higher would not reveal the world to me - there was nothing to reveal - but it proved to the world that I could break another law, the law of rising upwards and outwards.
I challenged the world to invent something to be there, so I could be in it, and it could make sense again. Suddenly, there was another floor around me.
Floor 28: Going Up?
When I describe this as the 'twenty-eighth floor' I am oversimplifying. I am soaring through an endless sequence of hastily generated realms. They abandon all pretence of following a direction or a pattern, or even of being complete worlds. They are simply planes of endless fog and winding mazes of stone leading nowhere. They cannot trap me within a realm but, fly as far as I might, I know I am always on the same ring of the spiral.
For a brief moment, I almost panic and lose my concentration. Sheer will and absolutely accurate following of the waves of music are the only things keeping me from my destined path, and if I lose my hold for one moment, I will be back at Leander's side and the defences will be tightened. I quickly realise what the problem is: this world has no dimensions other than the ones it feels it needs to have at any moment, and despite the appearance that I am ascending, the word 'up' is meaningless. Flying for the rest of my life will not get me any closer to the exit. The rule for leaving the floor is that I need a transporter.
I reach out with my third eye to that most fundamental level of this world and I carry on searching until I find the place where the transporters are kept, constantly moving as I do so. My mind has a clear picture of a transporter existing on the ground in front of me, like a lucid dreamer shaping their dream. It is exhausting, but as I am affixing the transporter to the world, I also walk forwards.
My feet touch the transporter. The surging noise rushes into my ears. I am no longer on the same floor. I am almost there.
Floor 29: To the Rescue
Heading closer to the Thirtieth Floor probably seems like an odd goal for me, like a prisoner trying to escape from his cell by running towards the Warden's office (or, if Chronos is telling the truth, the cell of a far more dangerous prisoner who will probably murder me). My goal is not to escape. I do not think such a goal could even be achieved. Nothing I have found in this world suggests a connection to the outside. I thought the objects might be dropped in here from outside, but they are actually stored in one of these floors that is specifically never used, and the food preserved by not giving the floor a time dimension. This process is supposed to be automatic. The only way an outside observer would want to interfere with an automatic process is if it stopped working. I already have this world's attention. To get the attention of its creator, I must break something more important. I believe this climactic battle on the final floor is such a crucial part of this world.
My second motivation for flying to Leander's rescue is not so rational. I have been his friend for my entire life. I am feeling genuine emotions, worry and empathy and maybe a tinge of loneliness, here on my own in a half-formed world where the very laws of creation battle me. I can feel his presence in my mind. He is projecting very strongly because of his extreme emotions, and I leave my mind directly connected to his out of habit.
He is lost and alone and he is worrying about me. He doesn't believe he can make it through the Labyrinth without me. What remains of his primal instincts, heightened in this hostile world, tells him that something is hunting him. Something much larger than him.
Floor 30: Final Destination
Finding the centre of a maze is never easy. The gate security is ramped up around the final circle. Willing myself through the gate to Floor Thirty is less like manipulating a lucid dream and more like keeping yourself inside a lucid dream that wants to wake up, while unknowingly you're sleeping on your wings at an awkward angle and the agony is seeping into your dream. With a kind of disgusted shrug, I am finally thrown through the opposite side. I immediately roll into a low crouch, foreclaws extended, teeth bared, spiked tail swishing. I don't know if I can free myself from my fate enough to actually fight someone, but I'll try even if it kills me.
Leander is already there. He is squaring up against the dragon called Chronos. It towers over him, five times his size, twice even my own. His terror drills into my psychic senses but he stands resolute, sword drawn. He has gone to that place he goes when he believes with all his heart that he will lose. Defeat becomes a mantra for him, and he fights in its name.
I am behind the dragon. Chronos doesn't know this yet. I don't waste the element of surprise. Tensing my muscles and releasing them, I spring forwards, grabbing his wings with my claws and biting into the back of his neck. I draw a deep breath, activating my fire glands with a subtle contraction of my throat muscles. Roaring in outrage, Chronos whips around his whole body with a force that throws me backwards. Ignoring Leander, his eyes lock with mine as we circle each other, looking for a weakness.
Then I hear it. A hollow, echoing distortion in the music, as if the bards have moved the instruments into another room and started playing there instead. The angry storm-clouds in the sky twist themselves into a whirlpool and I can see a stark black void that hurts my mind to look into it. It is drained, I know, the source of the power used to create this world.
Something is reaching through it. I don't wait to find out what it is. I am already flying towards what I know is the only chance to escape I will ever have.
Roaring, I project a full-force mental warning into Leander's mind, then grab him in my claws and lift him off the ground. I had expected him to run and hide, but the moment I look down to make sure I am actually lifting him by his arms, and not, say, his hair, he is standing over the still form of Chronos. Blood drenches his sword. I wasn't psychically scanning Chronos, in case the connection became two-way and he mentally dominated me, but now I realise the dragon is dead.
Leander looks more surprised at this fact than anything.
Epilogue: What To Do With The Rest Of Our Lives
Leander, I asked , how are you with hatchlings?
How am I with... good grief, that was fast! I always thought dragons were slower at getting round to such things than humans!
I don't have eggs yet. I just wondered what I should be telling them about my adventure, if I happened to meet an eligible drake and we settled down together. For instance, what exactly the moral lesson was supposed to be.
I have no idea, sorry. I don't think you can have adventures with morals to them in a world that artificial. They probably forgot to add any morals. Maybe you should just invent your own parables, or just tell them straight out that being nice to each other is worth their while.
It's not very romantic, but it sounds like a good idea. It doesn't matter anyway. I can't find any drakes who would make nice colour hatchlings. You have to mix their colouring with your own to predict the new colour hatchling, you know. I was hoping for a golden dragon, so I can have orange hatchlings.
That's seriously why you don't breed with other colour dragons very often? I thought you just didn't like each other.
You still know hardly anything about dragons. I thought you were supposed to be studying.
All the books you gave me are about the legal issues around becoming a bounty hunter for dragons. Nothing to do with mating or childbirth. Although the chapter about young offenders was... interesting.
Yes, it's a complicated issue. You can't just sit in the study with your snout in a book, though. You need to go out into the world and meet some dragons other than myself. I'm not exactly a prime example of a mentally healthy, socially well adjusted dragon living a normal life.
Humans don't have snouts. You're as bad as me. And how exactly am I supposed to meet other dragons? It's not like you can go to the tavern and buy the local dragon a pint.
Clearly you aren't going to the right taverns.
Because they're all on the top of an unscaleable mountain peak. And I'm a destined dragonslayer. I'm not going to be very popular even if there are any dragons on the same continent as me who don't eat humans on sight.
I'll fly you to the old homestead as soon as my wings don't hurt like hell. I've already told my grandsires all about you, so everyone in the roost should know by now. They're terrible gossips.
You sound less like an over-institutionalised hermit every day.
I'm trying my best to recover. What did you tell your roost?
It's not called a... never mind. They didn't believe a word I told them anyway. They think I ate the red mushrooms again. I've been discharged from the Watch.
That's sad to hear. You'd think they would be worried about the threat that's still on their doorstep.
We don't even know who's responsible or where they are. We're going to have to go back and sort it out, aren't we?
When I recover. And you have a good enough understanding of the law to do so while following procedure.
Sorry if this is bringing up painful memories, but don't you remember anything at all about the place you were held when the experiment was being set up?
Only the music. And that's going to stop now that the experiment has collapsed. I could try listening out again. There can't that many sources of strange music in the woods.
Burgundy... I know I say this a lot, but thanks for helping me out in there.
I barely did anything. I should have done more from the start. We're partners after all.
I guess we are. Leander and Burgundy, Dragon Bounty Hunters Extraordinaire. We need to get a shop sign. And a shop.
And a landing pad.
Yeah, that too.