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Musical Nightmares

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Prologue: Even From Birth

 

Even when I was still in my egg, I understood something of the fate intended for me. A dragon spends a long time in their egg, where they are protected by the thickest shell of any egg-laying animal from the intense heat of the volcano that is needed for them to hatch and the kind of predators that might dare steal from a dragon's nest. They develop all their senses, including the magic-handling senses not shared by humans, some of which don't have names in human languages, before they hatch, and some of their learning is imparted through a mother dragon's telepathy, so I knew a lot about the world around me before I could even see. I don't think they were aware of this when they stole me from my nest to be used in the experiment. If they knew exactly how much I was spying on them, they would have at least put me in a different room, instead of on a velvet pillow on their desk, right next to the crystal ball.

 

My first memories were of comforting warmth and darkness. Images and sensations came to me while I was curled up in a ball, suspended in my nutritious fluid, as though I were dreaming. Mostly I heard the soft machine-like sigh of the processes keeping me alive, and the vague, reassuring mental pulses, more fundamental than words, from my mother, the occasional sensation of motion when my egg was moved. I was sung to a lot. The dragon-songs were the roots of magic, not just a rhythm to lull me into a trance so I could focus my mind on learning, a cyclical tune that matched the circular nature of fate, but also an active chant that unlocked a dragon's magic. I saw the magic working in my mind, bright rainbow strands drawn out of the cracks in the many-layered blackness like colours washing out of ink. I saw the words, light and sound behind everything, how it was all just the same energy, and that it could be fixed, the broken made to resemble the whole, or reshaped entirely with an intense enough thought. A dragon shapes its own existence, wills itself to exist, in the egg, and so it is the first thing we are taught to do.

 

With time, my mind grew enough that it could grasp more concrete concepts, and I began to think in words and images, not just sensations, noises, movement and light. My mother had begun to teach me more practical lessons, about the outside world, the other dragons in the roost, which were family, which might be dangerous, how to survive hatching, what would happen to a newborn dragon when it hatched and how to keep myself out of danger. It would be a year or so yet, as a dragon who hatched early could not survive the conditions that dragons live in. The lessons stopped early when I was taken from my nest, but by then I was not being kept in a place where dragons normally roosted.

 

The first I heard about the attack was a wave of panic hitting my mind, a telepathic signal from my mother that a trespasser had been sighted near the nest. She flew off to intercept the intruder and cut off her connection to me. A mother does not fight near her eggs, as the psychic connection between them is so deep that a badly wounded mother can accidentally transmit too much pain and fear to the unborn children and psychically fry their minds or even stop their hearts. When she did not return and I realised I was being moved - placed somewhere not warm enough for a dragon egg - I panicked, but then someone had used magic on my egg to warm it up again, as well as some powerful protective wards, and I was somewhere soft and comfortable again, and something was speaking to me reassuringly.

 

It wasn't my mother, or even a dragon, but it spoke in a way dragons could understand. Its way of speaking, with its odd, stilted sentences and strangely-angled thoughts, its concept of itself that was too purposeful and mechanical for a living thing, amused and fascinated me as a knowledge-hungry young dragon. As long as I was still being kept alive and I had another mind to talk to, I didn't worry about my mother. After all, I had no proof that she was gone forever, and I barely had a sense of time anyway. The thing that identified itself as a crystal sphere full of swirling mist told me about a purpose it had been created for, and that I had been selected to be involved in very soon. It was a magical experiment - something that might or might not work, it wasn't known yet, but that it was worth risking. There was another in the room, a powerful magic-using human (I had been warned about humans), who was conducting the experiment. The crystal ball's job was to contain the experiment, to be the physical structure it was kept in, whatever it turned out to be, and that in a way, it was like an egg itself. I had to be contained within it too, so there were certain shapes that had to be in my mind, certain ways I had to shape reality.

 

These were complicated, and I didn't understand them, so the crystal ball explained them with a song. It was a beautiful song, a song of motion, an endless voyage. I felt myself walking into the mist until I was lost in it, but the more I concentrated on it, the more I saw, angles and lines and walls being built in my mind as I walked, more permanent than any stone. For a long time, I think most of the year, I simply existed within the song, building walls out of mist with my mind, and I was beyond rapture, I had reached a point beyond the need for it, I simply existed completely in the form that I did.

 

Then the crystal voice declared that a suitable candidate had been fond, and the experiment proper was about to begin. My egg was falling, and I was worried it would break, but then I landed on soft grass, somewhere else entirely, and I could sense in my mind that he was there.

 

 

 

Floor 1: A Stray Human

 

He was lost and confused as I was. No, more so. As soon as I registered his presence and scanned his mind further, I was hit by an overpowering wave of disorientation and homesickness. I couldn't even learn his name, his mind was so full up with the same fog that I felt rising up all around me, dampening my shell. He had no thoughts of his name, of where he had come from and what he had been doing, and at first I was afraid he had lost his memory entirely. After a short while of shock, then a slightly longer period of absolute panic, he seemed to calm down. He began talking to me, in his physical voice. He was a human, I could tell, an ordinary human with no magical powers. My instincts told me to fear him as the predator he was, adaptable to any environment, intelligent enough not to act on motives other than instinct but not intelligent enough to understand the long term consequences of his actions on the world. This particular human didn't seem that dangerous, though, and not all dragons were the same, so maybe not all humans were the same.

 

"Hello, egg," he said, "You're big for an egg. I don't have anyone else to talk to, so I might as well talk to you. At least you're alive, and you aren't trying to kill me. Not yet, anyway," he amended, "Maybe you will when you grow up. I'm Leander, by the way. I'm not from around here. In fact, I'm completely lost. I don't see a nest around here, so I'm guessing you're lost. Um... so, what's your name? I guess you can't answer, but I can't talk to something that doesn't have a name, so I'll have to name you myself."

 

With some fairly insistent and not at all polite mental prompting, I managed to project my name into his mind, so that he said, after a few utterly ridiculous guesses, "I know... you're sort of reddish brown... I'll call you Burgundy!"

 

I sent out a telekinetic wave to make my egg shudder slightly.

 

"I'll take that as a yes," said Leander, "Well, we need to keep moving, or we'll starve. There isn't much food around here. Not for us, anyway. Some things here seem to think I'm food. I don't have anyone else to talk to, so I'm going to take you with me."

 

With that, I was picked up and put somewhere dark and warm that kept jostling me, probably some kind of large sack. I didn't like being in a sack, but I did like the way Leander hummed along to the music that we could both hear inside our minds everywhere we went.

 

Floor 2: A Winding Maze

 

With every step I take (or rather, that Leander takes) I am learning a little more about the world I find myself in. Leander actively narrates what is happening a lot - I think it helps his sanity, as his limited human senses cannot pick up much stimulus from this lonely world he finds himself lost in - and some of it I can infer from the sensations I pick up. For instance, I now know that the mist is physically present in the world, not just in my mind, and that it is impossible for Leander to see through it, but that the mist parts as soon as he walks through it, so that he can see a small distance around him. The world is an endless labyrinth, deliberately constructed and perfectly tended by an invisible gardener. Its substance varies - some mazes are made of avenues of tall conifers winding around forest clearings, some are deserts lined with giant cacti, yet others are mountain paths separated by statues of giant humanoid heads, broad with large foreheads, a little like Golems. The heads are magically enchanted to change expression from a kind of ponderous frown to a smile that Leander says is creepy. The other backgrounds also change reactively - for instance, a field of sunflowers begins to bloom more rapidly as Leander walks past. Periodically, Leander steps on something that feels strongly magical, and from his reaction, has to be a teleportation circle that leads to a different labyrinth.

 

Leander plans to mark time using these, treating them as important milestones in his plan to escape. He is treating the experience overall as a challenge for him to overcome, something deliberately set up for this purpose, as it is so well planned, and contained so many things both to hamper and to aid him. In his home town, a master would set such artificial tasks for an apprentice to test him in a safe environment, although the Labyrinth is by no means safe.

 

Myself, I am mostly concentrating on thinking, and preparing for the inevitable time when I have to hatch out of my egg.

 

 

Floor 3: Unwise Experiments

 

Scattered around on the ground in the clearings there are a number of objects. They radiate magical power so that they look like a rainbow of different glowing auras, easily bright enough to penetrate the darkness of my shell. Scan them down as I may, I cannot tell what their function is, mundane or magical. Leander usually narrates out loud what he thinks their mundane function is, so that I can tell apart rings, scrolls, potions and wands. They are marked with different colour labels as well as emitting different coloured magical auras, so that I tend to get told all about the 'red potion' or 'purple scroll'. I am starting to wonder if this experiment is a test for an apprentice wizard, to see how we handle unlabelled magical items that are shielded against detection. If this is the case, Leander has already failed. He insists on trying each one by immediately activating it, usually targeting himself with it.

 

"If we find out straight away, we'll always know for next time!" he explained to me in his usual suicidal human logic. To give him credit, he did discover very quickly that a particular type of item with the same colour always has the same effect - whoever it is that placed all these items here is meticulous when it comes to colour coding them.

 

As well as the magic items, someone leaves food, gold, weapons and armour for us. The food is necessary to survive, because none of the monsters can safely be eaten (Leander tried it once, and he was very lucky to have picked up a Cure potion on the previous floor). Leander makes good use of the weapons and armour - he told me that he works as a town guard when he isn't trapped inside magical labyrinths. However, neither of us can think what the money must be for. There is nothing here to buy or to sell. The beasts that hunt us can't be bribed. No merchants live in these woods, or any sentient beings at all. We are entirely dependent on the ineffable and fickle distributer of things lying around on the floor.

 

"Maybe whoever finds my bones can buy me a nice tombstone," said Leander once, in a fit of unusual optimism.

 

Floor 4: Beasts

 

As we advance through this labyrinth, the beasts that hunt us become more dangerous. While before Leander complained about giant toads, slimes and the unintelligent giant land-worms that are my brute ancestors, I have detected the first hints of true magical power emanating from the creatures that he battles with now. One was described to me as a giant floating crystal that summons waves of fire along the ground, another is a bloodshot disembodied eyeball, yet another some kind of hideous ogre in long tattered robes, barely intelligent enough to cast some kind of spell that causes Leander to become even more befuddled and wander even more aimlessly than usual. I should point out that these beasts should not exist in the same environment as each other: the toads are marsh -dwelling creatures, the eyeballs and slimes are subterranean, I think the ogres live in the ice tundras and I'm fairly sure I've seen at least one aquatic creature swimming around on land. Whoever put these creatures here has put in a great effort to capture them from all around the world.

 

Leander is now convinced that the purpose of this labyrinth is purely to execute him, so that the twisted voyeur with the crystal ball can watch him struggle futilely against his inevitable death while throwing ever larger burdens at him whenever he thinks he has a moment to rest. I still believe this is a trial that we can legitimately pass. Leander's battle prowess is being honed through these constant fights for survival, and I watch him kill the same beasts with less and less effort. The weapons and armour left out for Leander are increasing in quality, a fact that he points out to me every time it happens but seems unable to be grateful for. I can only do so much while I am still an egg, but I try and contribute to our survival as well. For instance, I broadcast psychic warnings whenever I feel the aura of a monster sneaking up behind us. I am also trying to pulse reassuring emotions into his mind in order to boost his wavering morale. While his pessimism seems to spur him on, as though he is determined to put in ever more effort just so he can prove to me that even the greatest feats of heroism are futile, this fugue of his can't be good for his health.

 

Floor 5: At Random

 

Today Leander ran out of food. It had crept up on him rather slowly. When he has to concentrate on watching out for monsters every single step he takes, he forgets to notice things like the fact that he had gone through an entire floor of the maze without finding anything edible on the floor. I feel slightly guilty for not pointing it out sooner, but I can't detect food, especially not human food, I don't need to eat anything here in my egg and a random dead animal or lump of ground-up corn doesn't have a magical signature to spot. There isn't anything either of us could have done anyway. If there isn't any food, there isn't any food.

 

The maze can be like that. Sometimes we don't see any food for an entire floor, then we'll see rooms piled up with nothing but food, so that he stuffs himself sick trying to store up fat for the next time he has to go hungry. On the same floor, we'll see no scrolls at all, then it'll be potions and we'll suddenly have too many scrolls to fit in the scroll pouch. It's been a while since Leander was given any new armour, and this fact worries me. The monsters are growing more dangerous and that battered old thing he wears can't fend off their claws and teeth any more.

 

Leander takes this seeming randomness as a sign that he is imprisoned at the whim of some mad sorcerer and will probably never be released, unless his captor forgets to feed him one day or deliberately starves him to death out of fickle spite, but I can see a sort of pattern emerging. This world has seasons, a season of plenty, a season of scarcity, one of new things and one of rest and recuperation. They change quickly, they have nothing to show for them except the placement of objects on the floor, they don't always follow each other in the correct order but there is some kind of cycle at work. It isn't guaranteed that it even works as intended - this is a magical experiment, and experiments sometimes fail.

 

I hope Leander finds some food soon. His strength is flagging a worrying amount. I didn't realise such a scrawny, lazy creature needed so much food. I worry that I will soon have to make this journey alone.

 

Floor 6: Starvation Point

 

Leander finally has food, moments away from it being too late. He was so weak from hunger, he barely had the energy to keep walking in a straight line, never mind fight the battles ahead. He began to use the healing potions he was supposed to be storing up for the middle of battle, but then they ran out as well. Being alive, going anywhere at all, was sapping his strength to a dangerous degree. At the exact moment when he was thinking of giving up, of just dropping down onto the floor and waiting for one of the beasts to find him, so that 'at least one person in this purgatory could have some food', he found a loaf of bread on the floor. Actually, I think he must have tripped over it, as his vision was beginning to blur over by that point. It didn't last very long and it was a little stale, but Leander said it tasted a lot better after so long without food. Compared to most things you find lying around on the floor, I am surprised at how edible the food has been so far. Why have the beasts not been eating it?

 

Maybe they have. Maybe the entire floor of each room in the maze is full of food, but how much is left over at the end depends on how hungry the other denizens of the room have been, and how fast you arrive at the scene. Maybe some of them have been drinking the potions as well, or making nests out of the scrolls. Leander doesn't really think about it, because he is struggling to survive most of the time, and so doesn't have much liberty to sit and ponder his situation any more, but the monsters must be doing something when we aren't invading their sanctum. For instance, I am now convinced that the reason for the increasingly savage and bizarre types of monsters is the increasing levels of magical energy.

 

Which makes me wonder what exactly is awaiting us when we arrive at our destination.