By Nathan Veyon
To open the portal, the populace must supply 100 barrels of fresh blood, the bones of fresh game, the cries of the filled arena, and 1,000 gold pieces.
I recklessly charged past the Alchemist Council posters announcing today’s event, desperate to get home. Why had I forgotten to stay at home today? Empty streets stretched before me. Garbage, the only sign of humanity. Everyone else was at the arena to see the portal open. But I had seen it open before, and I never wanted to witness that horror again. Rats slunk back from their feast at my hastening footsteps. A sudden roar echoed through the dim maze of alleys. I paused at the next turn. I was closer to the arena than I thought.
I must have missed my turn. How do I go back?
A clarion blast louder than the crowd, louder than thought, invaded my mind.
I hurried down uneven stone steps; the gloom deepened, and the cheering faded. The dark cavernous space wasn’t an alley. I was underneath the arena.
Please no. Not here.
Another blaring cry sounded. The portal was opening. I had to find a way out. Light filtered around the edges of a door. I burst through. Rapt awe froze me in place.
The portal’s swirling lights and shadows opened across the arena’s floor, mesmerizing me. It must have been night in that other world, for I couldn’t see anything but a sea of darkness and clouds.
The size of the aperture was staggering. I was drawn forward to the brink. When I had been younger and disobedient, I had been too far away to realize the true scale.
My next step crunched. I looked down. Bones lay scattered alongside a golden trough filled with blood. The golden ring encircled the entire portal. Bones, blood, gold, the cries of the crowd. These were not the ingredients of alchemy, but bait in a trap. Sickening clarity set in as another trumpeting blare sounded. Climbing higher toward the portal was the achingly beautiful form of a dragon. Pale rose scales covered its regal head. Deep crimson streaks spread across the wings and painted intricate whorls on the flanks. A sinuous tail lashed as its wings beat harder.
I dropped to the ground as the head—larger than five bulls—broke through. The crowd above me was hysterical. Yet I felt something deeper. If the earlier blast had been trumpets, this was a war horn deep and undulating, like far-off thunder shaking the ground.
I leaned forward, staring into the deep. The blackness moved. The night sky flowed and twisted. Not night. Not sky. Another dragon. A form too massive to comprehend. The rose-colored child was nothing compared to the behemoth below.
The alchemists had to close the portal. Now! Below the arena’s seating I could see loaded ballistae thirsting for blood. Yet, somewhere among the firing stations were those able to close the portal.
I raced along the arena’s sandy lip. The wild cheering of the crowd and the bellowing of the dragon fighting its way upward blurred. Fear drove me below one ballista then another. It was near the third that I saw a doorway. I careened through it, stopping as a group of men and women turned to look at me. They each wore a black cape patterned with interlocking, colored rings—alchemists.
“Close it,” I yelled.
No one moved.
“Close the portal.” I gestured wildly at the array of equipment.
“Sir, the dragon is almost through.” A young woman watched out a viewport beside the door. “We need to reduce the aperture if we hope to bind it in position for the ballistae.”
A man with pure white hair stepped forward. “Reduce the magic flow slowly in five-point increments.” His cane suddenly pointed at me. “Speak clearly what you mean. Intruders are easily removed.”
I glanced around, but each face was inscrutable. “I saw in the portal.”
“The whole crowd can do that.” The cane tapped my chest.
“No! I was on the edge, and I could see down inside. There is a massive dragon.”
“Most find their first experience with a dragon overwhelming.” The man gave a hard smile. “Now…”
“You’re not listening! That rose dragon is a baby compared to this. If what is down there comes through, we’re doomed.”
There was uncertain rustling. The leader glared at me before striking the ground. “Filad, check this. Sodyin, what is the power flow?”
“Increase increments to ten, and someone signal the ballistae.”
I couldn’t believe it. “Your bloodsport isn’t worth this.”
“If it were that easy.” The cane waved at the ceiling. “Theatrics are a useful narrative. This isn’t about bloodsport. It’s survival.”
Filad entered. “There is a Great One below.”
The cane tapped the stone floor incessantly. “Increase to twenty points.”
Sodyin looked out the viewport. “Sir, the first dragon is stuck between worlds.”
“Let it slip back through.” The leader glanced at me.
I stepped to the door and watched the rose dragon writhing against an invisible grip it couldn’t master. To my horror, a massive black foreleg emerged from the portal. It grabbed at nothing, battling with an unseen force. The small dragon plummeted out of sight. But the arm remained, pushing further. A deep rumble shook the arena.
The leader’s cane struck a conduit repeatedly until it gave a gasp of smoke.
A groaning came from outside. Gray mist shoved the scaly intrusion inward until it jerked out of sight.
The alchemist leader stared past me. “The Wandering Aerie is overpopulated. They seek a new world to dominate with their siren beauty and fire. You stopped a Great One from entering today.”
I stared at the vast, gray mist solidifying in front of me.
“The dragon’s call didn’t drive you to bloodlust.” The alchemist leaned on his cane. “You could be a valuable asset to our cause.”
I shuddered. The siren song echoed, willing me to refuse and let my worthless world burn.