MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Sam lived in a world of bones. He found them throughout the dragon, wherever he walked, embedded in the tissues lining every artery, every organ, every cavity, like fossils in rock. The bones came from griffin and basilisk and garuda raptor and lesser dragons, from creatures of earth and fire and flight. The Pacific firedrake was a patchwork creature, constructed of bits and odds and ends from hundreds of other creatures, and Sam figured all the bones he found were leftover parts. He couldn't be sure. He was alone inside the dragon, without anyone to explain his world to him.
He spent most of his time in a cockpit built from various arm and leg bones and ribs. The cobblestone floor was mostly armored scales and spinal plates. The pilot seat was a weave of smaller bones, and it'd taken Sam a while before he figured out how to sit in it without jabbing himself in the ass.
And then there were the finicky controls. The pilot's yoke. The wing levers. The fire valve. These were made up of thousands of tiny bones, knitted together and threaded into each other like an intricate dry stone wall.
Most of the controls didn't do anything. Maybe the problem was that Sam had basically no idea how airplanes worked. But he suspected there might be more to it. His relationship with the dragon had changed and gotten weirder over time. Last year, the dragon was a monster that existed outside of him, a creature he was trying to sabotage, because some awful people were going to use it as a weapon of mass destruction. So he'd leaped into the dragon's gestation tank to prevent that from happening and ended up losing his body and having his consciousness and magical essence absorbed into the dragon.
He'd been destroyed. He'd dissolved away, flesh and blood and sinew and bone, like a seltzer tablet in water.
But he wasn't dead.
He was in the dragon now.
He understood that he wasn't literally in the dragon. He wasn't literally kicking around inside a hundred-foot-long living bomber. He was no longer a physical being. Yet his back ached when he sat too long in the pilot's chair. And he still needed to pee and shit, which he did way down away from the cockpit in the base of the dragon's neck. He still needed to sleep, which he did in a hammock made from stringy bits of flesh he'd torn off from the inside of the dragon's cheek.
And he needed to eat.
He looked out through the dragon's eyes, his cockpit's windows. He could see craters in the dark part of the crescent moon. Every meteor trail was a brilliant firework. The stars would have been bright enough to read by if he had anything to read.
And, below, the ocean churned, and Sam saw whales. It was migration season for the California grays, making their journey from the frigid Bering Sea south to the warm bathwaters of Baja. The sea was black as ink, but he could make out white patches on the whales' backs and mottled skin, crusted with barnacles. He pulled on the stick and the dragon banked around. It usually didn't respond to Sam's touch, diving when Sam tried to climb, belching flame when he cranked the fire valves shut so tight he lost skin on his palms, but now it followed his command. The dragon was as hungry as Sam.
He flew in a broad circle, defining his kill zone. It contained three whales: a forty-foot cow with a one-year-old calf, and surfacing a few miles from her, a massive bull.
Sam focused his attention on the bull.
The bull dove and Sam pulled back on the stick. The dragon shot up hundreds of feet, its wings pushing air with the sound of rending thunder. At the apex of its climb, Sam thrust the stick forward and yanked on the wing levers. The dragon reversed direction in a tight loop, swept its wings back, and dropped.
Sam braced his legs against the control panel to keep from falling out of his seat. He didn't think he could crash through the dragon's eyes, but he wasn't terribly confident about that assumption. Really, he ought to get around to making seat belts.
The surface of the ocean rushed up at him. In seconds, the dragon hit the water with a monumental crash that stung Sam's cheeks. He descended into the depths, pursuing the whale.
The gray worked its massive tail, fleeing for its life, but it couldn't match the dragon's speed. Other whales answered its grunted alarm calls, not just the nearby female and her calf, but more whales from miles around. Sam didn't speak whale, but their voices saddened him. They sounded frightened. He didn't like feeding on them any more than he liked eating shark and grouper and marlin and seal and walrus. Before becoming part of the dragon, in the world he thought of as Past, when he'd been a seventeen-year-old guy walking on two legs, he'd been a vegetarian.
As the dragon's nose drilled through the cold depths, Sam sighted the whale, a great, dark column of muscle and flesh desperately heaving its tail and plunging yet deeper. Then, abruptly, the whale reversed course. With a grunt that reverberated in Sam's belly, it climbed through the water on a collision course with the dragon.
Whalers used to call grays "devil fish" for the violence they did against wooden ships and men hurling harpoons. But Sam was piloting a living weapon. The whale would be no match for the dragon's powerful rear legs or its curving talons the length of school buses. Sam leaned to his right and pulled on the pair of femur levers that controlled the firedrake's legs. The dragon's talons closed on the top of the whale's head. They ripped through hide and blubber.
The whale beat its flukes, not frantically, but with purpose. It rammed its forehead into the dragon's midsection, and the dragon coughed out a parcel of superheated air. A cloud of bubbles and boiling water and blood filled the cockpit windows. Sam's own air escaped with a whoof. His diaphragm spasmed as he tried to refill his emptied lungs.
Blinded and gasping, he took another hit from the whale with the impact of colliding moons. The firedrake's armored scales rang and clanked, and Sam doubled over in his seat, his mouth and eyes wide open in pain. He reached out, pawing the control panel for the talon levers, and when his hand landed on them, he pulled and pushed them, hoping to rake his talons down the whale's belly.
The water became blood and partially digested plankton and viscera. The whale gave a long, final deep moan, and the dragon sank its serrated teeth into blubber and flesh, tearing away giant slabs of meat and swallowing them whole. Sam caught his breath and felt his body filling with nutrition and energy. The tang of blood and the rich, sweet flavor of whale flooded his senses.
Sam was an osteomancer, and osteomancers gained magic from the creatures they ate. The whale was not an osteomantic creature, not like the firedrake was, but Sam could still sense what it had been before he killed it. It had lived more than half a century and swam in the black, crushing pressure of fifty fathoms. It had seen shipwrecks, and squid longer than itself, and witnessed islands drowned by tsunamis. It had wondered at dolphins and at calving glaciers. It had mated and fathered a dozen offspring.
Sam was grateful, and he mourned.
* * *
Hours later the firedrake glided low over the Southern California Kingdom. The sun dawned across the desert, just peeking over the dark purple mountains on the eastern horizon. The dragon usually flew over land at night, the people down in the twinkling grid of city lights oblivious to its presence. But today it would be seen.
As soon as it set course, Sam wrestled with the stick. He tried to plunge back into the sea, or nose-dive into an empty parking lot, or climb above the clouds, all the way to the airless skies. Maybe the flame in the dragon's fire chambers would starve and go out. Maybe the dragon would suffocate and die.
Sam didn't want to die, but since he'd already sacrificed his life once to prevent the dragon from doing harm, he was willing to do it again. But the dragon was on self-pilot now.
It approached from the north, paralleling the shore and cliffs of Point Dume and soaring over the beach houses of the Malibu Colony. In seconds, it reached the Santa Monica Pier, where the roller-coaster cars still sat parked on the track and the Ferris wheel wasn't yet turning.
Sam pulled the stick right to steer back out to sea, but instead the dragon turned left, inland. It beat its wings, and dogs howled. Pigeons and rats cowered among the palm fronds.
It slowed over a Mid-City neighborhood. Low-slung buildings lined the main canals of Pico and Robertson-an assortment of shops, cafés, consignment furniture stores, a handful of synagogues and churches. Dingbat apartments and single-story houses clung to the side canals. There were no great powers here, just office workers and dental hygienists and drywall installers. Just people.
Sam made sure the fire control wheels were spun all the way left, firmly in the closed position. There was nothing else he could do. Whatever destruction the dragon wrought, how many lives it took, Sam wasn't responsible for it. These were the firedrake's crimes, and the crimes of Otis Roth and the osteomancers who'd built the dragon.
And yet, the dragon's previous targets were connected to Sam. He'd burned every last one of Otis Roth's warehouses. He'd burned Sister Tooth's church of bone. He'd burned the San Gabriel Grand Port and a gas station out on the northern shore of the Salton Sea. These were places associated with the people who'd built the dragon, or places Sam had been in the few days before his dive into the dragon's tank.
So, really, the idea that the dragon's path of destruction had nothing to do with him was just a thin fiction.
But he didn't have any particular ties to the neighborhood below. Maybe the dragon was expanding its range of targets. Or maybe Sam was becoming random in his cruelty.
A searchlight mounted on the roof of a liquor store pinned the dragon in an illuminated beam, and an instant later a siren revved up and wailed. Lights snapped on in windows, and Sam allowed himself a drop of hope. Maybe there'd be antiaircraft. Maybe a shell at such close range would shatter the dragon's skull and end this.
But no artillery barrage came.
The dragon bellowed. Leaves shook from the trees, and panicked birds exploded from their perches. Cats darted under houses. Windows shattered, a noise no harsher to Sam inside the dragon than the impact of jacaranda petals floating free from the branches and landing on the surface of the canals. The dragon's call was an alarm clock. It wanted people awake when it visited horrors upon them. The spicy, sour tinge of terror floated up to him, and the dragon sucked it up, and Sam loved the smell.
The cockpit swung around on the end of the dragon's neck and pointed straight down. Sam fell forward, his ribs and knees crashing into the control panel. He looked out the dragon's eyes to see what the dragon would burn first.
No more than a hundred feet down was a little stucco house with maybe two or three bedrooms. The people who lived there had put in a nice garden. There were rows of tomatoes and peppers and a lime bush. Sam imagined weekend parties with homemade salsa and margaritas. Two boats were docked on the canal out front, which meant they were probably home.
The dragon exhaled, and the air danced in a heat mirage. Once again, Sam tried to tighten down the fire control wheels. They reminded him of oven knobs, made from chunks of gnawed vertebrae. He gripped them and turned with all his strength, fighting to make them budge even as skin tore loose from his palms.
Of course, it didn't help. It never did.
The dragon sent a massive ball of liquid flame onto the house. Burning with deep reds and purple-blacks and near-white yellows, the flame flowed down the sides of the roof like melting wax. The roof caught, tar shingles flaking and crumbling away. In only a moment, Sam could see burning rafters and insulation boiling with toxic smoke.
The dragon beat its wings, spreading a storm of glowing embers to the neighboring houses. More fires caught, but the dragon wasn't done.
It turned next to a two-story apartment building. Patio furniture and potted plants occupied the balconies. And on some of them, toys.
"Stop it," Sam screamed, his voice bouncing off the sharp angles inside the cockpit. "Just stop it."
The dragon shrieked fire down on the building. It caught even faster than the house.
By now the roar of flames and crackle of burning wood and plaster leached through the dragon's hide. Sam smelled the pleasant bitter odors of smoke, and he tried to suppress the satisfaction of having created more heat than he'd spent. Scrambling across the cockpit floor, he picked up a bone the size of a baseball bat. He'd been using it as source bone for various tools and hardware-screws, pins, handles, levers-all to devise new and better mechanisms to wrest control of the dragon. He wielded the bone as a club now, striking the cockpit windows. He wasn't sure what he was hoping to accomplish. But eyes were sensitive, weren't they? If he couldn't control the dragon, maybe he could hurt it from inside. Maybe he could turn its attention to him, away from more houses and buildings to burn. Maybe he could shatter the windows and crawl out the dragon's eyes.
And if he managed that, what would he be then? An escaped thought?
He bashed the windows a few more times, but the bone just bounced back as if he were hitting taut sheets of leather.
The dragon beat its wings, generating more wind and storms of embers. At least a dozen houses were in full conflagration now. Orange light danced behind windows. Roofs went up in whirlwinds of flame and sparks. People staggered on the sidewalks, or fled, barefoot. Some carried their most precious items or just whatever they could grab: photo albums, boxes of papers, crucifixes. One old man in nothing but his pajama bottoms clutched a fly-fishing rod.
Flames engulfed half the docked boats, and in the canal, a woman with three small kids threaded a skiff around burning debris. She kicked away flaming palm fronds falling on the boat and the water steamed around her.
The dragon swiveled its head toward her. It wheeled around in a lazy arc, flapping its wings just enough to hover above the little morsel. Terrified, the woman putted along as fast as the boat would go, and the dragon vented heat from its nostrils.
"Why are you doing this?" Sam screamed.
But that was the wrong question.
The purest expression of osteomancy wasn't just eating magical creatures, but becoming them. Somehow, in a way Sam didn't have the learning or experience to understand, he had become the firedrake.
The correct question, then, was why was he doing this?
He had no idea.
He climbed back into the pilot's seat. Grabbing the stick again, he tried to pull up, to lift the dragon into a climb. The stick moved, but the dragon didn't. Flames wavered on the edges of the windows.
There was no logic to this. No reason. This place, these people, meant nothing to him. It was just a place where people lived, a neighborhood like hundreds of other neighborhoods in Los Angeles. He had nothing to gain from their loss.
Flames swirled before him, as if the dragon were sculpting death, just for the mother and her children in the boat below. Why was it toying with them? Or with Sam?
He squeezed the stick, driving the bone into his bleeding palms, grinding his teeth so tight he was sure they'd shatter. There was a crackling like dry straw, and the control stick splintered and snapped off in his hands.
The dragon raised its great wings, the tips smashing into the sides of houses and shattering roofs. It brought them down again, and the waves they generated almost capsized the woman's skiff. But the dragon began to climb. It rose through smoke into clear air, where Sam could see flames still spreading to other houses and people crawling on front lawns and families holding hands and running away. He caught sight of the woman in her skiff. She was stuck now in a clog of traffic of other people trying to get away in their boats.
Whatever he'd done differently this time seemed to have worked. Somehow, this time, he'd managed to exert some control over the dragon. Sam wasn't steering the dragon, but at least it was flying away without immolating the woman and her children in the skiff.
The dragon rumbled with a vocalization. To Sam, it sounded like laughter.
Copyright © 2015 by Greg van Eekhout