Tag: dragons

Flash Fiction: Sorceress of Flame, Part 2

This week’s Flash Fiction challenge over at Terribleminds is to write the second part of a four-part story started by someone else. I picked “Sorceress of Flame” by Toni J, whose site you should definitely check out.

— Part 1, by Toni J —

The magic in dragonflame lingered long after any heat had died away. Lady Sera knelt down and pressed her hand to the ground. The charred earth sent a shockwave through her body. Broken wagons and barrels littered the ground beneath the black skeletons of trees. This place had been a popular trade route not a week ago. Now, it was a grave.

Olvar stood a few paces behind. He picked up a skull, and dusted off the ashes.

“Poor souls. Is this the work of the monster we seek?”

It couldn’t be. Her father was drawing a pact between dragons and men. It would be signed by month’s end. Why would a dragon risk destroying that peace? But, the forest had all the evidence of a dragon attack. She rubbed her arm as she stood up.

“I admit, it feels like the scars of dragonflame. When the villagers described what had been terrorizing them, I didn’t believe it.”

“Dragons are ruthless, uncontrollable beasts. It’s only natural they would stoop to this depravity.”

Lady Sera clenched her jaw at the insult. She’d known many dragons; even the most ruthless could never be called mere beasts.

“I… come. Let us find Juniper. Perhaps we can catch this creature before any others get hurt.”

Olvar spoke a blessing over the skull and placed it back on the ground. They followed the trail of destruction north and west, toward the mountains. A dragon would be impossible to track once it reached the peaks. Lady Sera gripped her staff tight as they approached the shredded carcass of a goat.

“Something isn’t right.”

Olvar sniffed the air.

“Agreed. The meat’s soured, but still smoking.”

“Over here. Another berry bush, burnt to a crisp. The evidence is too evenly spread to be random.”

“A trap, then. Very good!”

He rushed forward, pulling his longsword from its sheath. Lady Sera reached out to stop him.

“Wait! Juniper hasn’t caught up yet. Olvar!”

It was too late. The paladin let out a battle cry as he disappeared into the darkening woods. Lady Sera wreathed her hands in fire as she rushed after him. The magical flame lit the forest around her. She followed the sound of Olvar crashing through the underbrush.

She heard a falcon’s shriek overhead; Juniper’s hunting bird meant the ranger would be near. Soon after, a bellowing wail pierced the air. Lady Sera’s heart sank. It was a dragon after all. Massive wingbeats sent gusts of wind through the trees. When she reached the open cliff, she saw Juniper firing two arrows into the dragon’s right wing. The creature flapped once, twice, zigzagging over the foothills.

Olvar heaved and wiped the sweat from his brow. Bronze blood tipped the paladin’s blade.

“We were close. Next time, the monster won’t be so lucky.”

Lady Sera shook the magic flames from her hands.

“He won’t get far with those injuries. We should rest a while.”

Olvar wiped the dragonblood from his blade and saved it in a vial.

“When you said you were hunting, Junie, I thought you meant boar.”

“Never fear. Hera and I caught four rabbits. Build the fire and you can have two of them.”

Olvar piled the wood and set out bedrolls. Lady Sera struck the flint and bent low to blow on the sparks. They only caused a little smoke. She checked to make sure nobody was watching, and spat into the tinder. The fire sprang up instantly. She sat back to find Juniper shaking her head.

“Don’t waste your mana on our fires. You’re going to run out of replenishment potions.”

Lady Sera laughed, perhaps a little too loudly.

“I’ve never been good with the flint. Magic’s expensive, but it’s easier!”

During their meal, they discussed the scene of the dragon attack, and the creature responsible. Lady Sera had a host of questions, very few she could ask aloud.

“Did you see the dragon, Junie?”

The ranger shifted in her seat.

“It was dark. Must have been a male, though. A real brute.”

Olvar grunted as he tore off a chunk of leg.

“What do looks matter? Tomorrow the beast will die, and we will collect a kingly reward!”

Lady Sera’s appetite waned as she considered the possible dragons in this land. None that she could name deserved death. An interloper, perhaps? Her father would want to know of it. If she could identify him or her, she could alert the dragon leaders. They would lose their bounty, but what was gold compared to peace?

Later that evening, she waited for her companions to sleep. Olvar’s snoring kept the mountain wolves at bay. Juniper’s breaths grew deeper and more peaceful. Once she was certain they wouldn’t follow her, Lady Sera snuck off in the direction of the wounded dragon.

Dragonblood made a pungent trail through the foothills. Each drop reeked like a smelting factory. Where it touched stone, the surface became metallic. Lady Sera’s nostrils flared as she took in the scent. Mixed in with the blood, there was something… else. She followed that new, strange aspect straight into a bramble patch.

She hardened her arm from the thorns while she reached inside. The source of the mystery smell was an arrow. By flamelight, she noticed thin layer of poison coated the barb. She wrapped the arrow in fabric and tied it to her belt.

A low roar rumbled up ahead. Lady Sera took off toward the sound of the dragon. She found the wounded creature a mile later. It thrashed in the underbrush, dragging one wing along the ground. She cautiously approached, staying outside the range of a lashing tail or snapping jaw.

“Great One, I am Lady Sera of the Flame. Please, speak with me.”

The dragon wheeled on her. His golden eyes were clouded over. She held up her fire-wrapped hand to see him better. He staggered toward her; his slick, black scales reflected the orange light. Lady Sera’s eyes widened.

“Father?”

— Part 2 —

For a moment, the grove was covered in an aura of utter silence. Dragon and sorceress stared at one another. Lady Sera’s breath caught in her throat. Her father’s countenance was aggressive, almost feral; had he been so gravely wounded that he was blinded by his pain and his rage? Even at their most calm, dragons were dangerous creatures. Wounded and slighted, they were far more likely to strike rather than talk.

After a hearbeat that felt far too long for its own good, the golden eyes of the dragon cleared slightly. Vertical pupils blacker than obsidian narrowed within molten gold irises. Then, after a moment, she heard what was both a relief and a concern.

Daughter. You are the last presence I expected in this wood.

Lady Sera bit her lip at the sound of her father’s heart-song. In their natural forms, dragons did not have the proper structure in face and throat to make the sounds required for most mortal languages. Instead, when a dragon wished to converse with a mortal (and was uninterested in taking mortal form themselves), they focused their wills into a projection of their part in the song all dragons shared. It sounded like a chorus in Sera’s mind, low and harmonious, dangerous and soothing all at once, the words emerging from the song after a moment of clear, beautiful music.

The concern was that the voice of Vorathrax, her father, sounded somewhat strained. She approached, eyes on the dark ichor that stained his scales.

“Father, you’re wounded!”

Yes. The dragon turned his head to regard the gash in his shoulder. An envenomed arrowhead, slipping past my scales. An expert shot from a practiced archer. One of your companions?

Lady Sera winced. “Yes. Juniper, the ranger.”

Vorathrax chuffed, smoke billowing from his nostrils in brief, singular puffs. Better her than that oaf of a warrior you slum with.

“The wound is deep. You could die.”

I have endured far worse, and you know it.

Even as she heard his words, she watched him settle his four feet into the earth, then turn in a circle three times, reminding Lady Sera of a housecat. As he did, the song she could hear grew in pitch and depth, and she felt a sympathetic chord struck within her own being. Draconic magic was not like the arcana studied by mortals; dragonsong was a fundamental part of creation. As he rested, curling up on the ground, Sera approached. The dragon opened one of his eyes to study her, then closed it again. She slid into the center of the circle created by his body. Her father’s breath rumbled deep beneath the scales of his chest.

“Did you attack that caravan?”

No. Of course not. That was Skarathrax.

Sera nodded. Skarathrax was her half-brother, a young and impetuous dragon. “What set him off this time?”

Farouk and I were teaching him some of our history. He was struggling to pay attention. I chided him. He flew off in anger.

“What were you discussing?”

Some of our interactions with mortal-kind. Farouk and I were sharing stories regarding the songs that change form, for a time.

“Like how you met my mother.”

Just so. The music paused, and Vorathrax huffed again. It was perhaps not the best subject upon which to educate him at this point. He needs to shed soon. He is always cranky before a shed.

She nodded, resting her head on her father’s chest.

Serathrax. The feel of her own name, full and in the music of her father’s blood, made her shiver. You should come home.

“I can’t. The mortals have to be taught that you’re not all dangerous. And you’re far from savage animals.”

And you come into the wild hunting us as part of this education?

“It’s my hope that one day we’d find a dragon who would be willing to share their heart-song with someone other than myself.”

Your optimism has always heartened me. She felt a rumble in his chest; it was a sound of contentment and comfort. But you know, daughter, that those of us willing to mingle with mortalkind are few. And when we do, we prefer to do it in a form more familiar to lesser beings.

She nodded. “I know. But I still have hope.”

For a time, neither of them said anything. Then, her father’s heart-song, more melancholy and soft, drifted into her mind.

How is your mother?

Sera swallowed. “She’s ill. Nothing threatening, yet, but she’s rather miserable. I had to leave her to investigate the attacks.”

Vorathrax rumbled. I should come to her.

“You should stay with her.”

You know such an arrangement is impossible for me.

Anger flared within the sorceress. “You are one of the mightiest of all dragons. There is nothing that is impossible for you.”

I have power, this is true. But as one of the eldest wyrms, I also have responsibilities. Few of us yet live to believe in coexisting with the world, rather than conquering it. Without my guidance, hatchlings like your half-brother are doomed; perhaps not to death, but to lonely and completely destructive lives. I will not abandon them. Not even for you, my daughter.

Sera wanted to protest loudly, to argue, but a tingle at the edge of her senses pushed the discussion aside. Vorathrax felt it, as well, and his head raised even as he uncurled to stand. Lady Sera got to her feet, calling forth flame to her hand. By the flickering light of her arcane fire, she saw two familiar forms emerging from the underbrush, and her heart dropped into her stomach.

“Good work, Lady Sera!” Olvar crowed, the blade of his sword gleaming in firelight. “You found the beast!”

Juniper’s eyes narrowed, settling on the arrow tucked in Sera’s belt. “Something is not right about this.”

Lady Sera held up her flaming hand. A familiar itch tugged at her forehead, and down her spine. Not now, not now… “Olvar… wait.”

Instead, Olvar charged.

Movie Review: How To Train Your Dragon 2

I’m not sure why I didn’t see How To Train Your Dragon sooner. Other than the fact that it has dragons in it, it also features Vikings, who tend to make things more interesting and fun as a general rule (see also The 13th Warrior). While I was aware that its protagonist wasn’t a physically capable specimen and relied more on brains than brawn, which is another interest of mine when it comes to characters. Even with all of these elements I was all but guaranteed to enjoy, How To Train Your Dragon surprised me with its writing, its vivacious and highly detailed art, and the fact that actions had consequences that were not easily dismissed or explained away. In the interest of supporting such art, I made it a point to see How To Train Your Dragon 2 on its opening weekend.

Courtesy Dreamworks Animation and thegrzebol.deviantart.com

Five years after defending Berk and teaching its people to embrace dragons rather than hunt them, Hiccup is exploring both the ocean around his home and new ways to expand both his abilities and those of his dragon, Toothless. His father, Stoic the Vast, wants him to become chief so Stoic himself can retire, but Hiccup fears he is inadequate or ill-suited for the task. Hiccup and his girlfriend Astrid run afoul of some dragon hunters, who are capturing the beasts to join the army of someone named Drago Bloodfist. Determined to try and talk some sense into Drago, Hiccup sets out in defiance of his father’s orders, and is quickly caught up in events that teach him more about dragons, people, and himself.

A proper sequel should spend the bulk of its time on expansion. Since characters, locations, and plot points were established in a previous outing, there’s no need to rehash them in the new story. Those that do tend to feel bloated, boring, or both – for examples, look no further than the sequels to The Matrix or Michael Bay’s Transformers. How To Train Your Dragon 2 is very quick to get a bit of exposition out of the way through a voice-over from Hiccup, and then gets right into telling its own story. The world outside of Berk is expanded rapidly, and established characters show varying degrees of growth, holding on to attributes that made them memorable while demonstrating how they’ve changed.

Courtesy Dreamworks Animation
There’s a lot going on even in the backgrounds of this movie.

There is a great deal of good storytelling here, and much of it is not contained within the dialog. DreamWorks Animation has shown that it can convey a great deal of meaning and emotion in quiet scenes bereft of dialog, and How To Train Your Dragon 2 is proof that their skills are only growing. Toothless, in particular, is even more expressive than he was in the previous film, interacting with Hiccup and other dragons in fascinating and endearing ways. We feel we know this otherwise inscrutable and even alien creature as well as we do Hiccup, and Toothless doesn’t speak. We are shown, time and again, that the two have an indelible bond, and its depiction is lovely to behold, even moving at times. The art in general is gorgeous, with characters well-defined and bearing unique facial features and mannerisms, and landscapes all but leaping from the screen with their fresh and breathtaking vistas. This is even the case in non-3D viewings.

When characters do speak, they do so in spite of any celebrity association. Nobody’s a stunt voice, and nobody’s phoning it in. Despite multiple opportunities, the likes of Gerard Butler and Cate Blanchett never wink at the audience or make clever references to other established characters. Indeed, the film avoids pop culture references altogether, and while Jay Baruchel and the other voices of younger characters speak with a more modern affect, it feels natural given the disposition of said characters. Our immersion doesn’t break when Astrid and her friends plan their next move. Instead of relying on their voice actors as gimmicks, the creators of How To Train Your Dragon 2 ensure that what we’re hearing underscores rather than overshadows what we’re seeing. The scene where Hiccup’s mother and father see one another for the first time in twenty years is particularly moving for this reason. Butler and Blanchett emphasize the emotions we’re seeing, and we’re shown rather than told the depth of feeling between these two characters. It’s absolutely brilliant.

Courtesy Dreamworks Animation

I really don’t know if there’s anything more I can say about How To Train Your Dragon 2. Its story focus is tight, its visuals are breahtaking, it moves at a healthy but not breakneck pace, and its characters are extremely likable. Any quibbles I have are relatively minor ones: Drago Bloodfist is somewhat one-dimensional as a psychopathic anti-Hiccup, and Valka (Hiccup’s mom) could have demonstrated more combat skills and shown why she’s been able to hold off Bloodfist for so long. While it’s difficult for any story to be completely free of concerns, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is refreshing in its earnest intent and nearly flawless in its presentation. It doesn’t shy away from intense scenes, continues to show us that actions have lasting consequences, and while bad things can and do happen to good people, there are forces that will always be more powerful than tragedy and mad ambition. It’s very much its own animal but it undoubtedly shares its DNA with the previous film: it is a true family film. There’s comedy and bright colored animation for children, and compelling storytelling with rich characters for adults. It hits all of the right notes and balances things out pretty much perfectly. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I’m considering seeing it again, in 3D this time to get the most of those fantastic visuals. How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a wonderful time at the movies for all ages. It’s not just a treat for the kids; it just might awaken your kid at heart, as well.

500 Words on Dragons

Our stories are rife with mythological creatures. The minotaur, the phoenix, the hydra, ogres and fairies and vampires and wizards – the list is exhaustive. While I’m a fan of all of them, writing about some and playing others, there’s yet to be a creature that, in my mind, truly outshines the dragon.

Courtesy Dreamworks Animation

It’s not just that these are giant lizards that can not only fly but also breathe fire (or ice or lightning or toxic gas or acid). The thing that tips dragons over into my mental tray of ‘best things ever’ is the fact that they’re highly intelligent. While the Minotaur rages through the corridors of a labyrinth, and hydras try to feed all of their various heads, dragons often have agendas. Even if that agenda begins and ends with “roll around in enough gold to make Scrooge McDuck jealous.”

This isn’t always the case, of course. At times, dragons are simply smart animals. But intelligence is intelligence. For a case in point, I highly recommend How To Train Your Dragon. Specifically, play close attention to the character of Toothless. Without speaking a word of dialog, Toothless communicates exactly what he’s thinking and how he feels. He moves naturally, like a large lizard would, but he also has the body language and expressions of a very intelligent being. In addition to being a compelling character, and the adorable and unique mascot of an excellent storytelling series, he’s an exemplary dragon.

When it comes to articulate dragons, there are other examples. Draco from Dragonheart is a noble creature, while Smaug from The Hobbit is completely malevolent. Both are ancient and noble, in their own way, both are the last of their kind and both are massive in size with speed that belies their bulk. But while they’re similar in form and function, their characters are very different. Draco is interested in survival, and when presented with an opportunity to make something of himself, he tries to bring out the best in those around him. Smaug, on the other hand, is a creature of pure pride and avarice, reveling in his bountiful lair, and when a certain barrel-rider stumbles in, Smaug toys with it the way a cat toys with a mouse. Draco sees humanoids as both potentially dangerous and capable of better natures; Smaug can only perceive vermin to be exterminated.

Dragons, like our heroes and our villains, come in all shapes and sizes. But they are always fascinating, often beautiful, and terrifying in their core natures. Even exemplars like Toothless and Draco are still powerful, mythical creatures; dragons are true apex predators no matter how they express themselves. That’s part of what make them so interesting. Dragons that feature in the stories that stick with us either defy or indulge in their natures, and in both, they become reflections of ourselves. Like any good characters, they’re people, even if they have scales on. The lens that takes the shape of a dragon is an interesting one, and always will be.

The Execution of Smaug

Courtesy New Line Cinema

Previously I have discussed villainy in terms of how we relate to and perceive various villains. I’ve praised villains who achieve their aims through intelligence, charm, and guile. These traits tend to appear in villains who are not necessarily a physical match for their heroic counterparts, doing their dirty work through henchmen or other means. Usually, a villain who is smart, playful, and erudite is not an overwhelming physical presence that inspires awe without necessarily having to say a word.

Usually, that villain is not a dragon.

I’ll go into detail about The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug tomorrow, but after a few days of reflection on the film, I’ve come to the conclusion that, whatever else might be said about it, they pretty much nailed the ideal portrayal of the ancient magical beast. As impressive as the effects are that brought him to titanic, fire-breathing life, I’m more over the moon regarding the way in which his personality, perspective, and above all, his flaws have been transcribed from page to screen.

One of the first impressions we get is that Smaug likes to play with his food. Or at least, his curiosity overwhelms your typical violent response to intrusion. He is so massive and deadly, and Bilbo so small and insignificant (relatively speaking), that he could easily devour or eviscerate the hobbit at any time. However, he engages the thief in conversation. He learns more about this tiny burglar, and we in turn learn more about him. This is not anything like Bilbo and Gollum swapping riddles. There, we had a sense that the two of them were counterparts, diametrically opposed but somewhat equal. Here, the dread is palpable and ever-present, even as Smaug speaks in almost dulcet tones.

Being a creature that can fly, Smaug sees other beings as beneath him. He is so well-armed for devastation, and so capable of escape and endurance, that he really has no real sense of fear. He speaks and moves boldly. His speed belies his size and makes him all the more intimidating. All of this is conveyed through excellent effects in the film, matching well with our imaginations regarding how dragons should behave. The highlight of Jackson & Weta’s execution of Smaug, however, has got to be his flaws.

With that perspective comes a haughtiness, an arrogance, that blinds Smaug to the threats ‘lesser beings’ could present. From the dwarves of Erebor to the people of Laketown, he never once considers that his centuries-long life could be in danger. Most of all, Smaug is greedy. All of his treasure is HIS treasure, and he won’t part with a single coin of it. Dragons tend to have an instinctual draw towards shiny piles of treasure, which is somewhat odd for creatures of intelligence and articulation, but it’s worth considering that human beings can have similar instincts towards things of little consequence to overall life that still brings them joy, like football paraphernalia or Magic cards or cats.

What other dragons in literature would you like to see executed the way we have seen Smaug?

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