There are kin and there are –kin. There are not many dragons, but there are many who think they are, or want to be, or claim to remember being.
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by senior editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden.
– Traditional counting game
She found them indeed, but it made her heart bleed,
For they’d left their tails behind them.
– Little Bo Peep
I was fully human and running stealth, aware of the Celestials’ surveillance wherever I turned, Angelkin’s human drones and ubiquitous CCTV cameras turning like baleful cherubic eyes on rooftops and walls.
Trapped in a human body, it was almost as if I were back pre-Awakening, only worse, because this time I knew it was a trap. That human shape, that fragile human form:
I was a small shaped woman of some thirty human years, of dark hair cropped to my shoulders, of brown eyes, a BCG vaccination scar on my left shoulder, wearing nondescript clothes, knock-off jeans and sneakers, and an Elvendrum t-shirt. Walking down Orchard Road, Singapore, above my head the sky crumpled like a used napkin and clouds amassed and in moments it began to rain.
I took a turning by Lucky Plaza and hid under the awnings from the rain. It should have masked me from the Angelkin, and perhaps it did, but the others found me.
There were five of them in leather and spiked hair and semi-automatics and swords. Two were Chinese and one was Malay and two were white, but it made no difference, it was just their outer layering, like a sweet wrapper that could be discarded. Underneath it they were others, they were Otherkin.
‘Elves,’ I said.
Their leader looked at me and snarled. ‘Dragon,’ she said.
Nothing else needed to be said.
Around me humans were running, escaping. The rain beat down, beat down, beat down, beat down. It was as relentless as a four-chord. I scanned the five of them. Five elves against a dragon. I grinned, showing them my teeth. One of them took a step back. I looked into his eyes. He was scared. He would be the one I’d kill first, I decided.
I spread my arms like wings.
‘Come on, then,’ I said.
They drew their swords.
There are kin and there are –kin. There are not many dragons, but there are many who think they are, or want to be, or claim to remember being.
I was thirteen when it first happened, with the blood. I was in class . . . I felt it happen, suddenly, I remember crossing my legs, I felt cramps and my undies getting wet, I had to raise my hand, I was afraid of everyone looking at me, I said I needed to go to the bathroom and Mr. Flores said I could, and I half-walked half-ran and I locked the bathroom door and when I peeled down my undies there was all that blood—and with it, suddenly and without warning, came the memory of dragons.
My name is Tarasque, and when I spread my wings the wind lifts me up, as gently as a mother raises a child, and I soar above the earth. My very being is flight, my soul is fire. I open my mouth and roar and the humans flee below me, as small as ants, and the fire bursts out of me, it scorches the earth, I smell the burning of a human, how quick they are to burn . . . I turn on the winds, there is a village down below and I am hungry, I will sate myself, they fire arrows at me but my scales deflect them and I swoop down, low, and snap a human in my jaws and lift him, crying, into the cold, clear air . . . .
There was a pile of empty human skins on the ground around me, the rogue elvenkind, and I knew I was in trouble. It was still raining. Inside Lucky Plaza people were cowering. Humans do not truly believe, and when they see what lies inside, a primal fear takes them. We Otherkin used to be mocked, taunted, we were once weak, trapped in our human bodies, human persons, but not since the Mythago bomb. It freed us.
The rogue elvenkind had been an inconvenience. But the attention of the Celestials would now be turned this way, to Orchard Road, to Lucky Plaza. Already I could see CCTV like eyes turning, and in the sky the ghostly form of Angelkin and Demonkin both.
Their humans will block escape by land, my headmate, Tetsukaiju, said. He is Otakukin, a reincarnation of the famous Suupaa Hiiroo, Iron Monster. I felt his comforting presence besides me, in my head, saw him withdraw the two massive iron clubs he was famous for. Once people thought Otakukin—those people who imagine themselves the reincarnation of famous manga or anime characters—were mad, disturbed. But the Mythago bomb put an end to that delusion, releasing the Otherkin from our human imprisonment.
We cannot escape by air, my second headmate, Growl, said. Growl is a wolfkin, an Otherkin like myself, but he exists as a beta-Mythago, without corporeal form. The three of us—Tetsukaiju, Growl and I—are soulbonded. They are my best friends, and my constant companions, sharing the space inside my head with me.
What then? Tetsukaiju said.
We must meet with the Maid, Growl said. This is our only chance. We have waited so long!
I could sense them coming closer, the angelkin and demonkin in the air swooping towards Lucky Plaza. The dead elvenkind were at my feet, their discarded skins . . . and I knew then, with a touch of revulsion, what I must do.
My mother picked me up from school, that day I got my period. My body felt alien to me. I was shaken up by that sudden, almost violent memory as I sat on the toilet. For a moment I had felt myself flying, could smell the smoke and taste the air, the crunch of delicate human bones in my reptilian mouth. For a brief moment I remembered being a dragon—and I felt I was going mad.
And yet it had felt so real—no, more than that: it had felt so true.
When we came home I escaped to my room. I was still bleeding. ‘What is this?’ my mother said, coming into my room with my bloodstained undies in her hands. Then she saw my face and something in her changed and she came to me and hugged me, hard. ‘You are a woman, now,’ she said. I felt embarrassment, but also a fierce pride. And I thought—No. I am a dragon.
As an elf I walked through Orchard Road, wearing the discarded skin of my fallen foe. I had chosen the leader’s, and now appeared to be a small Chinese woman of about nineteen. Behind me angelkin descended from the sky and hovered over the fallen corpses, and demonkin swooped through the air, drawn by the smell of fresh blood. Their eyes scanned everywhere but they would not see me: for the moment I was safe.
I had to hurry, though. The Maid would not wait forever. It had taken us this long to track her down, through the Middle East, Siberia—we lost her tracks in China and recovered them in Thailand. She was working her way gradually around to some point we couldn’t know, sometimes as an ageing Western businessman, sometimes as a young Japanese backpacker, sometimes as a wolf, or a fae, or an elf. She was pure Mythago, a powerful myth-imago from the primal human subconscious, of which we Otherkin are mere children. The Maid, the Knight, the Rake, the Huntress, the Witch—they were capricious and unpredictable, impossible to find unless they wanted to be found.
I needed her help.
I followed a scent. Nothing more. It was vague and disturbing, it smelled of a primal forest and infinite damp and dying things. A small girl ran into me. ‘Sorry,’ she said. She was gone before I could speak and I realised I was holding a note in my hand that hadn’t been there a moment before. It said, simply, Bras Basah.
‘I thought she’d be staying at Raffles,’ Tetsukaiju said, and Growl snickered. I shushed them affectionately. At last we found our way to Singapore’s national library, a beautiful building and, nearby, to the Bras Basah complex on Bain Street, a mall filled with second hand bookstores. The smell of dust and dry books filled my nostrils . . . cooking from the open food court across the road. Rain. And that hint of Mythago. It was stronger, here. She was close.
After that first memory others followed. In later years I came to know that time as my Awakening, that gradual realisation of my true nature as Otherkin. As Dragonkin. Gradually the memories returned, at unexpected times, in bed, in class, riding my bicycle, in the garden, in the shower. Sometimes I’d wake up from a vivid dream in which all was flames. I knew my dragon name, Tarasque, immediately that first time, though I understand many others of my kind come to it only gradually, that for many memory is a more tricky thing, needing to be carefully excavated out of the hard ground.
But the more I remembered the more frustrated I became, a thing, I learned, that I shared, too, with my fellow –kin. For I was trapped. Imprisoned within my human body, with no redress, no escape hatch in the back of the skull. I was a dragon trapped in human form.
There were others like me. I found them huddling together online, in forums, on message boards. Sharing the joy and the pain of what we were. Not all were dragons. There were fae, wolves, elves, many others. I did not then know the word Mythago. Few of us did, for it was not in common usage.
I dated. At sixteen I went on my first date, a human boy, Michael, sly and gangly. I tried to tell him of my true self and he laughed. Word spread at school. I was bullied. The fire raged in me but it was trapped, I could not burn them, but I learned to use my fists, my nails. But there were more of them. Always, more.
That was when my first soulbond happened, when I discovered my first headmate, Tetsukaiju. He came to me gradually, forming like a wisp of smoke at first, a ghostly haunting. Yet he grew stronger, more real, this iron monster, this Mythago-wisp figment of the collective subconscious, born of Japanese manga, until he was always with me.
At eighteen I went on a date with a wolfkin, my first time within the tribe. When we met—I can’t describe it—it was as if something inside me, something feral and dangerous, responded to the animal inside him, my dragon spread her wings while his wolf responded with a growl of defiance and fear. Then he lowered his head, and bared his neck to me in submission. Excitement flared through me then, an unfamiliar warmth. At the back of his car I guided his fingers, I could feel his heat and his fear, for I am dragon. The flames burned within me.
I felt her before I saw her. The Maid. In that space inside my head my headmates cowered, but I stood firm. I cast off the elven shell and stood as I am, woman, dragonkin. I turned, and saw her.
Her power was overwhelming. Her image kept flickering, changing. Maid, matron, crone. You have been looking for me, little human? she said. There was a terrible amusement in her voice.
I am Tarasque, I said. I am dragon!
Child . . .
Please, I said. I need power. A weapon.
I have no weapon, she said.
The Celestials! I said. Angelkin, demonkin. They would rule us. Already their surveillance is everywhere, their power too great. I must . . . .
You must? she said.
I whispered, Can Mythagos be killed?
She sighed, then. A terrible sadness radiated from her shifting, flickering shape. We always die, she said.
But there is one—I said.
Her? she laughed. You do not understand what we are, little human. Go, leave me be.
Please, I said. I must—
Her sadness washed over me, and I found myself crying without sound, the tears streaming down my cheeks, down my neck, soaking into my shirt. Always, she said, you seek to kill us. Very well. There is a weapon. It is not here. It is very far and yet very near. It is in the sacred forest. It is in the primal wood.
Then name your price, I said.
Death, she said. The only price is always death. She pulled a kitchen knife. I could hear sirens in the distance, coming closer. The Celestials had found me again. We had only moments. Die, the Maid said, and plunged the knife into my soul—
No! I screamed, but it was too late. Growl jumped as the knife entered, jumped before it, shielding me. I could feel him die inside, his scream, his growl, echoed within the chambers of my skull. Then it was done, and I could feel him fading.
We are alone, Tetsukaiju said.
The Maid flickered. The Crone stood before me then. Come, she said. She reached into the air and opened a door into a darkness. She walked inside. Overwhelmed with grief, I nevertheless followed. Into the darkness. Into the wood.
When the Mythago bomb went off we were set free. Elvenkind, dragonkin, otakukin, Celestials, headmates: we were freed from the prisons of our bodies, allowed to manifest our true selves for the first time. To cast off that human shell! To be a dragon, soaring through the winds, breathing fire!
Who set off the bomb, I think I know. The oldest Mythago of them all. Seeking his own freedom. Seeking her old power.
In the new, changed world we formed alliances and sought to gain control. But they were his, from the start, the angels and the demons, and she called them to her and the Celestials came into power then. It was a time of bitter wars. Angola drowned in angels’ tears. Ireland was overran by homicidal leprechauns. Demons took the throne of England and walked the ancient White Hall.
The elvenkind joined them, finally. The elven nations occupied West and Northern Europe now, tall, blonde, with cold blue eyes. Otakukin were hunted there for sport.
The world needed a dragon, a dragon to fight back, but there are so few of us. We were fighting a guerrilla war and we were losing.
We were not fighting each other, I finally realised.
We were fighting the prime-Mythagos themselves.
In the wood. Darkness. The leaves are wet and slimy. This forest was never young, will never be old. It is the essence of forest. It is cold here, and very dark, and underneath insects burrow as my feet sink into the rotten mulch of leaves.
This is where they come from. Our collective unconscious, our most primal desire and fear. The place where the things we humans believe are become flesh.
Eden, they sometimes call it. The Mythagos’ Wood.
Mythagos live here. The primal images. The ones of which all of us –kin are merely shadows.
The ones the bomb had let out into the world.
I remember the day it happened. I never told people what I was. Only on the internet, on our own forums, our message boards, where we could share. I never told a work colleague: I am dragonkin. To do so would be to be ridiculed, picked on, to be victimized. You’re what? they would have said. You think you’re a what?
But then it happened . . . .
I was making tea in the staff room, looking out of the window at the city. London, on a rain-cast day. Just a normal day. Adding milk, sugar. Rain clouds in the distance, forming around the Shard. A wind beyond the glass.
The sky, dimming. The quality of light seemed to change. It became soft, like silk. I raised my hand and felt it slither against my skin, soft and warm. The clouds amassed around the glass of the Shard, I felt strange, my skin too sensitive, my face flushed. I felt it like a silent explosion, inside me. All around the office I could hear surprised cries, groans. Someone moaned loudly. I opened my eyes and I was the same, but I was changed. I could hear my headmates, speaking, as if they were standing right next to me. I turned as my boss, Julia, stumbled in, looking shocked, weak. She said my name. What is happening? she said. I smiled at her sweetly and my mouth elongated, my teeth lengthened and my long, red tongue snaked out. She pulled back from me in horror and I roared in triumph, and my flames hit the wall of the little kitchenette and seared them black. Shifting, my hard wings broke the enforced glass windows, shattering them and sending the fragment plunging downwards. The wind rushed in and I stuck my reptilian head out of the window, savouring the new sensations, the new smells. Behind me I felt Julia faint. I roared and my flames burned the air and I took flight, shedding my human form entirely, taking to the air in my dragon form. I was dragonkin! I was a dragon, and my name was Tarasque and as I flew over the city of London I could see and smell and hear them all around me, broken free from their human-skin prison, the Otherkin, my kin. Angels flew, dancing in the air as beautiful as soap bubbles and below the wolfkin ran in packs, howling in their joy. I was truly Awakened, then. I was, at last, truly free.
That was then. Before we separated into camps, into warring species. Before our bloodied battles, our grabs for power. Before the coming of the Krakenkin.
Headmate fought headmate. The elvenkind sent suicide bombers against the wolf packs. Otakukin manifested in a thousand pop culture Mythago fragments as ghostly giant monsters made battle in the cities: a giant ape laid waste to New York while giant spiders climbed the Eiffel Tower, spinning giant webs over Paris in which the human residents were cocooned like tinned meat in a larder.
It had to stop.
Walking through Eden I was lost and my otakukin headmate was silent. It felt as if I were back before Awakening, with no voices in my head, no one to share my head space with. Our soulbond was lost and I felt lonely, and afraid.
This was the primal, ancient wood. Here I could not shift, could not change. I was neither human nor dragon, but dragonkin. I was what I had been before. Lost in the dark trees, in the collective unconscious of the human race, from its earliest memories, from our time in the caves onwards. I was cold, and I was afraid. I had to find a path.
The Babe Lost in the Woods. Of course.
That was what I was.
And as soon as I realised that, a path formed itself in the dark trees, and I followed it and I came to a clearing and to a house in the clearing. It was a house made of thatch, and it was dark—no light burned inside. I snuck towards it . . . .
She hovered into view. The Witch. Dressed all in black and rags, her face a ravaged mask of sickness. She cackled when she saw me and her mouth filled with saliva. I bashed her over the head with a rock. Inside there was wood arranged for a fire, and a cauldron filled with water and, on a work bench, an axe with spots of rusty blood on the blade. She would have chopped me up but I knew how the story ends. She was out cold. I reached for the axe, to chop her up instead.
My fingers closed on the handle of the axe and a flame, searing and bright, shot up my arm, as bright as dragon fire.
I lifted it up and it was no longer an axe, it was the Flaming Sword, and I knew then that the Maid had led me true, and that we still had a chance.
The Witch, beside me, began to fade.
Can Mythagos be killed? I had asked the Maid. And she had sighed, in a terrible sadness. We always die, she said.
Only now did I understand her. I watched—felt—as the Witch oozed back into the collective unconscious, the dark mulch of all our minds. She will be reborn, old yet new, new yet old, for there must always be a Witch, just as there is a Crone or a Maid . . . or a Huntress.
At that moment, too, I realised I was no longer quite myself. No longer who I had been. By stepping into the dark forest of Eden, of the Id, I had shed both my humanity and my otherkin nature. An aspect of primal Mythago had taken hold of me.
I was the Huntress, the embodiment of archetype itself: a myth-imago. She was me. I was her. I stepped out of the Witch’s house and it, too, was growing faint, disappearing into the dark. The wood itself was faint now, visible only in outline as the fire of the Flaming Sword became the very focus of my being. Dragon/Huntress, I walked out of the woods and back into the human world, the sword lighting my way.
Paris from the air: the grey webs of spiderkin stretch as far as the eye can see, a trapeze mesh, the French cocooned as the kin scuttle back and forth on their mysterious errands . . . .
Daikaiju battling each other for dominance over the ruined cityscape of New York, giant ape versus moth, giant lizard versus flying mecha . . . .
Angelkin with burning radiance settling like a white cloud over the hills of Jerusalem . . . .
Tokyo with neo-cyberpunk guerrillas, in Hong Kong the steampunks ran riots, in Cuba Marx-kin battled Leninkind for domination. In London . . . .
I stepped through the space between worlds and emerged onto the Strand, Charing Cross Station rising on my left, Nelson’s Column before me. The Flaming Sword banished the darkness, held in my hand. I walked towards Trafalgar Square under cold hard stars.
All around me the air was thick with the very essence of Mythago. Red double-decker buses lay at unnatural angles all around me, their windows broken, ratkin scrabbling underneath them. The sound of their feet on the broken asphalt made my grit my teeth.
I was the dragon. I turned my head and he was beside me, Tetsukaiju, my headmate made incarnate. There was a film of moisture over my eyes. He came to me and we hugged. I said, This is my battle, where I am going you cannot come. I released him and continued on my way, alone. Growl was dead. Tetsukaiju was ripped loose from my mind, our soulbond broken. I came to Trafalagar Square stepping over the corpses of cars, over the litter of takeaway boxes and cigarette butts and chicken bones. I could feel him, his power, and I could feel her minions, watching me. I was prepared when they attacked.
With the Flaming Sword I hacked and slashed my way through a seething cloud of angelkin and demons, their shrieks filled the air and feathers bellowed in white and grey clouds.
Until I came to the place.
He sat between the two stone lions. The primal Mythago. The uber-mythago.
I say he but why should I?
She sat between the two stone lions. The primal Mythago. The one from which all myth-imagos come. The one to which the Celestials are but children, servants, playthings.
Her form shifted and changed. A glow. She was a burning fire on a throne of ice. The angels and the demons bowed before her, spreading out across Trafalgar Square. They parted as I approached her holiness.
We use the word God.
But what is God?
That most primal image in our mind.
You ask me what is God.
And I say unto you: God is a transabled, transethnic, transgendered, transcendent being.
And I say unto you, also: God is a promise.
The promise of life after death.
The promise of continuity. That thing we’ll do anything to hold on to, that belief, even if it means killing or enslaving others. That drug we crave, so badly, that salve for all our fears, for those night-time jitters, that horror that keeps us awake at four a.m.
That we will die, and death will be an ending. For we believe we have always existed, will always exist: to think we are disposable is agony.
We gave her power. We gave him power. We gave them a series of shapes, we made them in our image. Zeus, Ra, Shiva, Loki, Qat, or that old white long-bearded man. Or Athena, Kali, Ishtar, Iro Lei—take your pick.
The prime myth-imago.
The one I had come, at last, to kill.
How do you kill God?
I was there and not there at once. In the world and in the otherkin otherworld, the world of the Mythagos. S/he rose before me, a mass of burning white light, and my sword hacked and slashed, sending pieces of Godflesh like blubber flying through the air, like manna, falling down to earth where angelkin fought demonkin to devour it.
Little dragon, s/he said, and there was laughter and sadness and anger and joy in that terrible inhuman voice. Do you wish to go back to the way it was before? To be human, caught in human-form, in human-flesh prison? To know all this while that you are more than human, that you are a being of flame and power, a dragon, trapped forever in that one unchanging shape? I have released you from your prison!
And I cried as I killed God. I cried because s/he was right, that by sending the Mythago back into the collective unconscious I was dooming myself, and all otherkin, to our old fate. To be diminished. To be misunderstood, and mocked and hurt, in a human-normative world where our real selves were forever obscured.
I do not die, s/he said. I will always be there, in your mind, soulbonded. God will always be your headmate.
And that, I said, as I plunged the Flaming Sword into the burning mass of the Mythago God’s essence, is where you should remain. S/he screamed as the sword penetrated. We need God, I said. But we need it to be just out of sight, just unreal enough to doubt, a myth and an imago: like Desire, or Hatred, or Love.
I walked away from that place that day and the Flaming Sword had dimmed in my hand and it was a cheap plastic sword as can be bought from any toy store. I had no wings, no flame. Never again would I feel the joy of soaring on the high cold winds, of being dragon.
Women and men who had once been angels, had once been demons, had once been wolves, had once been animated heroes, now walked away. None would look at me. Already the city was filling up with familiar sounds. Buses running down the Strand, commuters hurrying to Charing Cross Station. A man was calling out loudly, handing out free newspapers. In the distance the bells of St. Paul’s Cathedral began to chime the hour, and God’s voice was lost in their music.
I cried as I walked away; but whether they were tears of sadness, or joy, or shame, I couldn’t, later, tell.
Who killed God?
I, said the dragonkin lord,
with my Flaming Sword,
It was I who killed God.
– Traditional nursery rhyme
“Dragonkin” copyright © 2013 by Lavie Tidhar
Art copyright © 2013 by Greg Ruth