The Lorelei Signal
The Ministry of Sacrifice
Written by Mary Jo Rabe / Artwork by Marcia Borell
I carelessly tore open the red envelope stamped with the Dragon’s official seal, ripping the single sheet of paper inside. My father had kept a sharp letter opener for official mail, and the opener was lying on the table, but I did not want to touch it.
I had had another fight with Elvin the evening before, and I was still thinking about it as I picked up the letter, scratching at the inflamed wound of my pride, angry he would be so evasive about the date for our wedding. The Lottery was the furthest thing from my mind, even though I realized I would have to glue the letter together. They required that you signed at the bottom and sent it back to the Ministry of Sacrifice. Otherwise, people would claim the letter was lost, or stolen, or eaten by the dog. People who won the Lottery. The lucky people who suddenly discovered that How sweet it is to die for our city slogan was meant literally. The lucky people like me.
After I read the letter, I suddenly found myself on the floor, looking up at the ceiling. It was as if I could see Him through the brick and mortar of the tower’s top, resting His heavy bulk on top of the city, cradling us all under His wings. Security always came with a price. But why should it be paid by me? After what had happened to my father, how fair was it for me to win?
There was no fairness in the Lottery and no “whys”. Somebody had to win it every year. This year, this “somebody” was me.
I was the city’s Ransom.
~ * ~
The first time I went to a Ransom Celebration, I was five and my mother was still alive. But I did not remember it, as I did not remember her.
After my father was gone was gone, I went to his Celebration with Elvin. There were speeches. There was flag-waving and tears. His picture stood on the podium—a large tintype wreathed in fresh flowers. Behind it, pictures of other Ransoms were arranged in a row. I focused on the tintype of a pretty girl with a shy smile. Why were so many Ransoms girls?
I sought Elvin’s hand, but it lay inert and unresponsive in mine. His family lived in the Upper Ring, closest to the Dragon’s Eyrie, and they did not approve of our relationship. They were here, though, because they had to be.
I looked at my father’s sepia-tinted face, enshrined in official immortality. Above was the large scarlet banner with the familiar slogan:
How sweet it is to die for our city!
I did not think it was sweet. But at the time, I thought it was necessary.
~ * ~
A noise came from the outside. I dragged myself to the window, squinted into the gathering dusk of the pale winter day. My tower was in the Second Ring, just above the blackened and dilapidated ruins populated by riffraff that huddled close to the curtain wall surrounding the Dragon’s City. Above me, staggered tiers of residential towers rose in concentric rings toward the Eyrie. But from my socially dubious perch I had a great view of the top of the wall where uniformed sentinels moved with the precision of marionettes, and beyond it, the broad featureless plain infested by the Adversary’s marauding gangs. In summer, it would be a patchwork of green and brown, threaded by the silvery stitchery of creeks. Now, covered by snow, it was as white as the sky above. For a moment, I forgot the Lottery, my mind curling up like a hedgehog, protecting itself. I woozily contemplated the scene before me.
Black dots were swirling against the white background. I squinted and saw that groups of people were coalescing into a column that moved toward the Gate. This was strange. The Adversary’s attacks usually took place in spring or summer. Surely no horse could gallop on the frozen crust of snow without floundering and throwing off its rider!
And then I saw that there were no horses. The attackers were gliding on skis over the drifts like water-spiders on a lake. They were not wearing the heavy fireproof armor that we were used to seeing on the Adversary’s warriors. These people were dressed in furs and armed with crossbows, flintlocks, and javelins.
I pushed the casement window open. The cold air cut my face. Opening a window was frowned upon—too easy to jump out—but I suddenly realized there was certain freedom in winning the Lottery. In being marked by the Dragon as His own.
The sentinels of the Wall scurried around in disarray, looking ridiculous in their ceremonial padded cloaks and tripartite headgear. A couple of guards were hauling a barrel, containing pitch to be set aflame or maybe just slops to pour at the attackers, but before they could get their act together, an invader below lifted his crossbow and nonchalantly shot a guard who crumbled like a discarded ragdoll.
How sweet it is to die for our city.
Meanwhile the attackers dragged something big and heavy toward the Gate. I leaned halfway out the window. It must be a battering ram! I had seen pictures in my history textbooks but never one in real life.
The attackers were well organized. Until now, only ragtag bands of desperadoes had tried to sneak in during summer months, sometimes doing no more damage than plundering an outbuilding or setting fields on fire. The Adversary was running out of fools who had succumbed to his blandishments, as preachers in Dragon shrines were wont to say. So, who were these people?
The ram swung against the iron-bound Gate, and I felt rather than heard a mighty blow. The Gate shuddered.
In adjacent towers, windows were opening like startled eyes, people leaning out, pointing, screaming.
Another push. The Gate was trembling. On the wall, the sentinels were scurrying around in disarray, firing their own flintlocks that did not seem to hit any targets. The short winter day was curdling into twilight, and the attackers were just an indistinct moving mass against the leaden background.
And then the Dragon came.
A sudden night fell as His shadow mantled the sky. The ragged silhouette churned and spread like an inkblot. The three heads blended and separated, a confused shadow theatre of bird-skulls and gaping beaks. His many wings were beating spasmodically, raising darkness into the air like the slit from the bottom of a muddy pond. The wings were shedding black feathers, each the size of a man, that plummeted down and found their victims, piercing their bodies with the unerring precision of a nail driven by a workman’s hand. Scarlet splotches bloomed on the snow.
The Raven Head emerged from the tangle of shadows, as big as the world, blocking the weak radiance of the new moon. The serpentine neck wove through the brittle air. The beak gaped, the black hole in the pale sky, as the Dragon cawed His victory.
The Gate clung shut. No way in, no way out.
~ * ~
When I was in sixth grade, they explained the Lottery to us.
The Headmaster who we called Mr. Chicken Legs behind his back, strode into the classroom wearing a formal suit and somber expression.
“This was how our city was saved,” he said.
He pointed to the large poster he had pinned to the chalkboard. The poster showed a sinister black figure in a crested helmet on a black steed menacing with his lance a huddle of drooping refugees. But standing between the oversized figure and the helpless women and children was the winged silhouette of our savior.
“The Dragon,” the teacher said. “When our city was sacked, our people massacred, and the Adversary was about to take control and turn the survivors into slaves, the Dragon came like a thunder from the sky. His Raven Head dispensed wisdom; His Eagle Head inspired the people with courage; and His Vulture Head demolished the bodies of the slain. Thus, our city was saved and renamed the Dragon’s City. And the Dragon has not abandoned us but is watching over us, defending us from enemies within and without. And to prove our eternal gratitude, the Lottery was instituted. The name of each citizen above the age of sixteen and below the age of sixty is entered into the drawing conducted annually by the Ministry of Sacrifice. Your parents’ names are there, and yours will be as well, when you reach the age of maturity. This is the highest honor any citizen could aspire to: becoming the Ransom for our liberty and security. And consider that this honor is available to each and every one of you. Whether male or female, living in the highest tower or the lowest one, rich or poor—you may be chosen to lay down your life for the peace and prosperity for all. The Lottery is impartial and blind. Any of you can know the sweetness of dying for our city!”
Then we were taken to the Dragon’s Hall in the school building where seniors got their matriculation diplomas. The walls were decorated with pictures of previous Ransoms from our school: starry-eyed girls in white gowns and square-jawed boys in fetching uniforms. We were assured that their souls had no fear of crossing the Three Rivers as they would be ushered straight into the Dragon’s Lair, while the rest of us would be subjected to the terrors and punishments of the underworld. We sang a happy song, and I went back home to my father, thinking of the new dress he promised to buy for my sixteenth birthday. It was just life: as natural as breathing; as unquestioned as the turning of the seasons. Because of course, winning the Lottery always happened to others.
~ * ~
Elvin refused to come with me to the Ministry of Sacrifice.
“They’ll want you alone, Sophie,” he said, avoiding my eyes. “They won’t even let me in, I’m sure.”
We stood so close that I could touch him for the last time, could put my hand on his cheek, feel the roughness of his stubble, trace the contours of his full lips. But I did not. I was seeing him as if through the wrong end of a telescope, immeasurably distant.
As I walked up the steep cobbled street that led up to the Dragon’s Eyrie, the torn halves of the Lottery letter in my pocket, I shivered in my thin coat. Elvin had given me furs, but I refused to wear them on my last walk. Now I was regretting my defiance. It was bitterly cold. As cold as on the day when my father had been Ransomed.
Having two people in the same family win the Lottery was unusual but not unheard of. The Lottery was blind, after all. He had kept the letter from me, going about his daily routine as usual: work, home, an occasional drink in the local pub. But one day I had come back home to find the open Lottery letter on the table, kept in place by my father’s antique letter opener. I stood in our cold apartment, feeling misfortune settle on me as gently and irresistibly as the snowfall that softly freezes you to death.
I almost slipped on the black ice and caught myself on the uneven stone wall with one hand. My second hand was thrust into my pocket, clutching my father’s letter opener, its icy metal clinging to my bare skin.
~ * ~
It was in summer that my father and I had our first and last serious fight. It was a beautiful warm day, green smells wafting on the wind from the fields and orchards beyond the wall. We were sitting outside the pub, having beer in the sunshine.
The fight was about Elvin. My father strongly indicated that Elvin was too good for me—or at least, that was how I interpreted his words at the time. Elvin’s father was a highly placed official in the Ministry of Procurement, and Elvin himself was perfectly placed to climb the bureaucratic ladder as soon as he finished sowing his wild oats. My father insinuated that I was just a grain among those oats. Of course, I was convinced he was standing in the way of true love.
“You are as bad as the Adversary!” I hissed at him. Even then, I was instantly ashamed of how babyish I sounded. The beer must have gone to my head.
My father smiled sadly.
“The Adversary is very useful, isn’t he?” he remarked.
I just stared at him. It sounded as strange as saying that night is bright, or snow is black. There are certain things in life that need to be taken for granted if one is to be capable of enjoying the warmth of a sunny day, a sweet flowery scent in the air, a foaming tankard on the table.
“Because of the Adversary, we had to ration food last winter!” I said finally.
The Adversary minions had set fire to our fields. The Dragon had killed all of them, of course, but by that time, the damage had been done.
“Food shortages are bad,” my father said. “But there are worse things.”
“Like keeping me from my fiancé?’
“If he is your fiancé.”
I stormed away and spent that night with Elvin. In the winter of that year, my father won the Lottery. And now, a year later, so did I.
~ * ~
I had spent last year agonizing over the fact that my father had gone alone on his walk to the Eyrie. But now I was alone too, and it felt strangely comforting.
The Dragon’s Eyrie loomed into the colorless sky. Old snow lay in dirty drifts along the plaza. The heart of the city looked dingy, and I felt offended that my last day should be so ordinary. Couldn’t it at least snow, so the city would wear the bridal white to honor my sacrifice? There was an apocryphal tale that once upon a time, only pure maidens and virginal youths had participated in the Lottery. The cynical consensus was that the rules had been changed due to the shortage of suitable candidates.
I lingered at the entrance, staring at the tall bronze door decorated with a bas-relief of the Dragon triumphing over the Adversary. The Adversary was depicted as a menacing faceless figure in a crested helmet, his broken sword lying at his feet. Above was the slogan that decorated every classroom, every shrine, every official building.
How sweet it is to die for our city.
I did not want to read the familiar words. Instead, I looked up, following the majestic sweep of the Tower’s rough stonework. It was the tallest building in the Dragon’s City. But what made it stand out even more was its top. Alone of all the towers, the Eyrie was mushroom-shaped, crowned with a wide flaring cap several stories high. The cap was not stone but metal; smooth, windowless, and unmarked, shining like polished gold even in the dull winter light.
“Can I help you?”
The elderly guard was muffled up in a greatcoat, his nose red and dripping.
“I’m…” I stuttered. For some reason, I felt embarrassed to tell him why I was here. “I need…Ministry…”
“Which one?” he smiled with the evident pleasure of offering help. He looked about my father’s age. “I can take you up. It’s a proper maze inside, and no mistake.”
“The Ministry of Sacrifice,”
The light in his face went out and he stepped back, as if I was contagious.
“It’ll be fifth floor,” he said briskly and avoiding my eyes, opened the bronze door.
~ * ~
He was right: it was a proper maze inside. Winding corridors lined by identical doors with obscure sigils instead of written signs. The scuffed carpeting the color of vomit. Ramps led from one floor to another so after making a couple of rounds, I did not know where I was. The dull, lifeless light of lumens fixed too high up on the walls, so shadows puddled on the floors like unclean water. Lumens were one of the Dragon’s gifts to His city, and every room had at least one, but shouldn’t His Tower be better illuminated than ordinary dwellings? Especially because the slit windows were covered by shutters that let in only scant drops of daylight.
All doors were closed. A low humming permeated the Tower, composed of the overlapping sounds of whatever bureaucratic activities were going on inside the offices. Occasionally a figure laden with files would emerge and scurry across the corridor but they disappeared through another door faster than I could catch up with them. I tried to call after them, but they did not seem to hear me. I was beginning to doubt my own existence. Was I a ghost already? Was this the shore of the Three Rivers, which the righteous souls had to cross to enter the Dragon’s Lair? If so, it was nothing like the soothing images in the Book of the Dragon.
Finally, I had had enough. I pushed one of the doors at random. Its sigil was a stylized pen with a feathered end.
Inside was a cramped office with a large desk burdened by the untidy scatter of papers. There were some pictures, which I could not make out because the only lumen was so old and exhausted that its light was brown like stewed tea. At first, I did not see the office’s inhabitant: a wizened man in a black suit, groping under his desk. He jumped up when I walked in and dislodged an avalanche of files that fluttered onto the floor.
“What do you want?” he asked in an aggrieved tone.
I marched toward the desk and leaned toward him so close that our noses almost touched.
“I won the Lottery.” I growled. “And I expect a better reception for the Ransom of the city!”
His face underwent an instant metamorphosis, the peptic scowl relaxing, and something ambiguous stirring in his faded eyes. He came out from behind the desk and looked me up and down.
“May I see your winning letter, please?” he asked.
I handed it to him. His eyebrows shot up when he saw its torn state, but he did not comment. He carefully perused it.
“Very well,” he said. “We are a different department, but I can take you to the Ministry of Sacrifice. Please follow me.”
I was about to but the pictures above his desk drew my attention. Despite his impatient huffing, I stepped closer.
There were four of them. The biggest one was a standard poster of the Dragon in His majesty: His wings outstretched into a semblance of a thundercloud; His Raven Head crowned with a circlet composed of stylized towers, while His Eagle Head and Vulture Head bore golden coronets. But below the poster were three smaller pictures that were unlike anything I had ever seen. At first, I thought they were private family portraits, though why would they be allowed in a workplace? But they were too well executed to be dabbles of street painters and had an unmistakable aura of officialdom. On the left was a grey-haired, straight-backed, black-suited official holding some sort of a seal. In the middle was a general of the Dragon’s Guard in a dress uniform, with a sword and a harquebus. And on the right was a teacher, standing with an open book in front of his class. The strange thing was all three had the same face: smiling, vapid, and vaguely benevolent.
The man coughed impatiently, and I reluctantly tore myself away from the pictures and followed him.
“What is your department?” I asked.
“Education,” he said.
~ * ~
The Ministry of Sacrifice was no different from any other department in this bureaucratic anthill. The same faceless doors, exhausted lumens, and mountains of paperwork. Any hopes I had had of touching ceremonies and soul-stirring speeches was instantly quashed as I was processed, and stamped, and entered in ledgers, and asked the same questions over and over again by a legion of faceless clerks. At least, it was efficient. Once my guide from the Ministry of Education deposited me in the reception room and scurried away without a backward glance, I was quickly taken charge of and maneuvered from office to office with an impersonal speed of a conveyor belt.
Once it was finished, I was ushered into a room that reminded me of the school infirmary. The lumens here were brighter here, and there was a vase of generic flowers on the table. And prominent on one of the walls were the same three pictures I had seen before.
I was examining them when a woman came in: stocky and middle-aged with a kindly face. To my surprise, she gave me a hug.
“Goodness gracious!” she exclaimed. “You must be starving, Sophie!”
I nodded gratefully. I was indeed famished, having eaten nothing since breakfast.
A server brought in a cart laden with delicacies such as I had never seen before. The City prospered under the Dragon’s wings; the famines of the pre-Dragon past were a horror tale. But our food was often plain as we relied mostly on ourselves in producing it. Neighboring cities were under the sway of the Adversary and refused to trade with us. The Dragon would occasionally bring exotic wines, spices, and fruits from His forays into faraway places, but we could not, of course, ask Him for steady supply. So, I had never before tasted anything like the melt-on-your-tongue slices of cured meat; round yellow honey melon; sugared apples and plums; cinnamon-scented warm bread. And I had never drunk anything like the red wine with the aromas of blackberries and cardamom that relaxed your limbs and filled your head with the softness of a summer afternoon. At the beginning, I felt vaguely ashamed of drinking too much because the woman, who had told me her name was Emma, looked like a school-nurse, and those disapproved of alcohol. But she topped my glass and toasted what she called “my good fortune”.
The meal was over too soon, and Emma got up and grasping my elbow, led me through a curtained doorway into another room that was filled with wardrobes and cupboards of various sizes.
“We need to get you ready, honey!” she chuckled.
The wine glow instantly dissipated, and I was cold-sober.
“What? Now? But I thought…”
I had thought—insofar as I allowed myself to think about it at all—that I would have some period of grace to get ready, a day at least, maybe as much as a week. Time seemed infinitely elastic now: a week’s postponement would be an eternity.
“Why to delay? He is waiting.”
She lifted her eyes to the ceiling and suddenly I realized with a piercing clarity that He was indeed waiting, sitting on top of this Tower like a brooding hen, covering with the shadow of His many wings the entire City. My whole life had been in that shadow: my parents, Elvin, everything, and everybody I had touched, loved, hated were marked by His presence.
“What? No…” I started backing off, toward the door. “No, I can’t! I’m…I don’t want to!”
Emma’s hand clamped around my wrist like a steel trap and her kindly eyes shone with a glint of the same steel.
“Come on, honey!” she said. “You know we have to do it.”
She pushed me onto a padded bench and hustled through the cupboards, pushing dress hangers around. I wanted to get up and I could not. My knees were suddenly weak.
How sweet it is…
I am going to die. And it is not sweet at all. It is dreary, and sordid, and ugly.
How sweet it is to be a sweet morsel on the Dragon’s plate!
See,” Emma was chirping, “they are going to name a school in your honor! Kids will sing songs about you. Everybody will be envious – you know what they say, how sweet it is to die for the Dragon…I mean, for our city. And after all, it’s not like you have much going for you. This boyfriend of yours, I mean…there are easier ways to break up, don’t you think?”
“What?” I went cold all over again. “What did you say? Elvin? What about him?”
Emma hauled out a long white gown with a beaded sparkling bodice and a gauzy train.
“This will do nicely,” she said with satisfaction. “He likes white. And yes, honey, that Elvin…I mean, you know who his father is. You should have been more careful. Why would he take a girl from the Second Ring, I ask you? A little common sense goes a long way. Now, try it on. If it doesn’t fit, I have another one for you. We’ll make you pretty, honey, don’t you worry!”
The gown fit. I folded my old clothes carefully, putting them away in the corner. Emma was urging me to hurry; I suddenly realized that she was impatient to get back home to her husband and two grown daughters. She told me all about them, as I was putting on the gown, my back turned to her, as she chatted on. I filtered out as much of her happy-family stories as I could. I didn’t think I had hated anybody in my entire life more than this bustling motherly woman.
Except one person.
Elvin had rigged the Lottery to get rid of me.
It was so transparently obvious that I despised myself for not seeing it before. The Lottery was rigged. My father was dead. My boyfriend had betrayed me.
And I was going to die, eaten by a monster.
~ * ~
The ramp leading up was carpeted with some heavy golden fabric and the lumens were new and fresh. The air swirled with sparkling motes. I went up, holding the train of my gown over my arm. I was alone. Why to waste guards when there was no possibility of escaping? The heavy door at the bottom of the ramp had slammed after me, and I heard the click of the lock. There were no windows, so I could not even throw myself out and deprive the Dragon of his meal.
There was nowhere to go but up. And up I went.
The train was cumbersome, and a couple of times I tripped and almost fell. But its heavy folds provided the disguise for what I clutched in my sweaty palm.
There was another bronze door on top of the ramp, decorated with a familiar frieze of the Dragon Triumphant that brought a fresh wave of nausea to my throat. I hoped I would throw up, splatter the immaculate carpet with the half-digested remnants of my last meal, but the nausea subsided. I pushed the door.
I expected a bloody cave littered with bones. Instead, there was an ordinary room. Not quite ordinary, I realized, as I took in the exotically carved sideboards groaning under crystal goblets and beaten-bronze trays; overstuffed armchairs piled up with embroidered throws; knickknacks and gewgaws littering every available surface. Each object alone was rare and striking; together, they looked like the hoard of an indefatigable magpie.
I slowly walked around the room, picking up a figurine here or a painted tile here. My fear dissipated. There was nothing left but hollow disgust.
And then I saw something gleaming under a curvy-legged table. I bent down…and then the door I had not seen before opened and a man walked in.
I quickly straightened up and tried to make my expression blank but did not quite succeed. Because I knew the man.
He was the one depicted on the three portraits I had seen. I could not be mistaken. That bland face had the strange ability to insinuate itself into your brain, lingering in your memory like a bruise.
He was wearing the black suit of the bureaucracy and he smiled broadly when he saw me.
“Hello, Sophie,” he said.
His voice was not quite as ordinary as his appearance. It was syncopated, underlain with stealthy whispers and sibilant noises as if he had more than one windpipe to produce it.
“How do you know my name?” I asked stupidly.
“I know the names of all my children.”
“You are the Dragon.” It was not a question.
“I am the Raven Head of the Dragon,” he corrected.
“So, what are we waiting for?”
“My Eagle Head and my Vulture Head.”
“And then you’ll eat me?”
“And then I’ll eat you.”
~ * ~
I realized the Adversary did not exist when I cleaned out my father’s old papers. They were a mishmash of shop receipts, tax forms (my father had worked in the Ministry of Taxation as a lowly clerk) and scrunched-up random notes. I found a tintype of my mother, but it was so faded as to be kittle more than a blot.
And among the papers was a single sheet of writing in my father’s careful round hand. It listed all the attacks on the Dragon’s City by date. Each date was followed by the description of the attacking force. They were mostly farmers from the neighboring provinces of Albion, angry at the Dragon for burning their fields and eating their livestock. Some attacks just had “rebels” in brackets.
The Adversary was mentioned nowhere.
~ * ~
“There is no Adversary,” I said.
The Raven Head shrugged.
“There were many. At the beginning. Your city resisted. Stupid people: hungry, poor, beset by enemies. Still, they resisted. What for? I brought security, prosperity, civilization. I made the former Tower City great. The wall had not been breached in a generation, even though your superstitious neighbors are still trying ‘to defeat the monster’. What fools! They live in stinking hovels while you live in bright towers. Their children swell with hunger and never learn to read, while your children are well fed, loved, and educated. And what do I ask in return? Just a bit of patriotic pride, loyalty, and selflessness. How sweet it is to die for our city. I came up with this slogan myself. Doesn’t it have a nice ring?”
The hidden door swung open and the Eagle Head walked in. He was wearing the general’s uniform covered in golden braids, clanking medals, flashy insignia. I realized that the sentinels on the Wall strove mightily to imitate him with their clumsy outfits that were unsuitable for combat. Why would they care? They had a monster to defend them against the would-be monster slayers.
The Eagle Head had the same face but puffier, coarser, flushed with dark blood. It looked even less human, quivering on the edge of an unspeakable transformation.
The two Heads turned toward each other.
“Where is he?” the Raven Head asked petulantly. The Eagle Head licked his slack lips. His pointed tongue lapped at his chin. Strange how seconds stretched and filled with my own time of frantic heartbeats. My mouth overflowed with metallic saliva. I had a moment to wonder at the fact that they needed to talk to each other as if they were not the same entity—and perhaps originally, they had not been. But that was not important. The important question could still be asked—and I did ask it.
“Is the Lottery always rigged?”
The two Heads burst into titters like mean schoolgirls, but another sibilant voice answered.
The Vulture Head just walked in. He was dressed in the modest tunic of a teacher, the same as the teachers in my own school had worn. And his face was the most inhuman of the three: blank and unfinished, with barely sketched-in features, his eyes like buttons: dull and opaque, with no whites.
“To make sure only the deserving are chosen as the Ransom,” the Vulture Head explained. His voice sounded as reasonable and convincing as my old Headmaster’s. We had made fun of Mr. Chicken Legs, but we had loved him too. He had been kind and dedicated. His voice had been soothing. He had taught us to be selfless and sharing. And he had shaped us into offerings to the monster, sweet morsels to be consumed by the creature that has stolen our humanity.
“By ‘deserving’ you mean ‘tasty’.”
“No all,” the Eagle Head objected. “Some just have to be eaten. We don’t get much out of them, but they are troublemakers, and the city is better off without them.”
Like my father.“How sweet it is to be the fodder for the Dragon,” I said.
The three Heads nodded in unison and then they started changing.
The three bodies flowed together into a ragged black mass, a pile of moldy feathers, swelling and growing precipitously, shoving aside the junk that the room was littered with. A webbed claw pushed from under the mass, yellow and scaly. The stench of a chicken coop, of acrid bird shit, and rotten bones, filled the room. And three scrawny necks rose out of the pile. Each bore a swelling head that was changing, melting, and reshaping itself. The bureaucrat’s bland features flowed into a vulture’s bald head; the soldier’s swollen visage transformed into an eagle’s cruel beak; and the teacher’s blank mask flushed with darkness and sprouted the oily feathers of a raven. They were cackling maniacally but I could see that the transformation was not easy for them. It was proceeding in fits and starts, with the huffing and puffing of an old man trying to climb steep stairs, because they were old. The Dragon, our god, was old, and molting, and pathetic.
I whipped out my father’s letter opener.
It was small, its blade tarnished. But it would have to do because there was nothing else.
I rushed at the Dragon, catching him in the precise moment when his transition was tottering on the cusp between three entangled men and a three-headed monster. The blade went into one of the wildly swaying necks, slashing through the pimply skin. I was deluged by a fountain of tarry blood that smelled so foul that I coughed and retreated. The other two Heads screamed. The opener flew out of my hand and disappeared into a pile of junk in the corner. The scream bowled me over, so I fell and rolled on the carpet, entangled in my own skirt. I ended up facing the curvy-legged table I had noticed before. As the Dragon roared his rage, I reached under it and pulled out a sword.
It was not much of a sword; not like the two-handed blade in those pictures of the Adversary confronting the Dragon Victorious. Its edge was dull. It must have ended in the Dragon’s collection because of the jewels encrusting its golden hilt, and these jewels, slippery with cobwebs, made it unwieldy and difficult to hold. But it was a weapon.
The raven head opened its beak wide and vomited a ribbon of flame that sputtered and died out before it reached me. It set a bolt of fabric aflame, filling the windowless room with acrid smoke. I dove through the smoke, the sword held aloft in a two-handed grip. I had never been taught to handle arms, but all those endless pictures and descriptions of the Dragon’s Fight had been useful for something.
An iron arrow whistled past me, almost taking off my ear. The creature—half a monstrous three-headed bird, half a dark-suited swelling parody of a man—was gurgling as its severed artery pumped out blood. It was plucking out its own feathers with a taloned hand and launching them at me. They metamorphosed into arrows in midair, but its aim was poor. The smoke helped to disorient the creature, swirling before me like a screen.
I ran the sword through its feathered chest, and it got stuck. As I was tugging frantically to get it out, the Dragon swiped at me. Its talons tore through my shoulder. A moment of sickening, gushing warmth—and then I was blinded with pain.
But the pain only fed my fury. The hot blood felt like a soldier’s cloak around my shoulders.
I was yelling something as I was hacking at the quivering pile of feathers, fabric, and flesh. And I only stopped when I realized the thrusts produced no response.
I spat at the tripartite body that lay, quiescent, on the floor.
“How sweet it is to die for our city, you bastard,” I said. “Glad you got to experience it.”
I poked the corpse with the tip of the sword. It looked like a melted sculpture of a bird fused with the sagging corpse of an old man. The three heads had melded into a distorted bubble of a beaked skull.
I dropped to my knees and slashed through the head. The stench of blood no longer felt nauseating.
Under the bird-skin was a human face, the same one as in the portraits. Except now it was old and worn-out, its glamor gone. And yet, for the first time it looked real.
The Dragon must have been human once.
I felt lightheaded. My gown was no longer white. The blood gushing from my torn shoulder had painted it in swirls of red. I rummaged through the junk in the room until I found a couple of scarves that I pressed to the wound to staunch the flow.
I went down the ramp and pushed at the bronze door at the bottom. It swung open.
Emma was waiting outside. Her face grew white when she saw me. She retreated, pressing her hand to her quivering lips.
“Didn’t expect me, did you?” I rasped. “What is it you were waiting for? The leftovers of the Dragon’s meal?”
She said nothing but, in her eyes, I saw what I needed: fear.
And I vividly imagined the same fear dawning in Elvin’s face.
“Take care of my wounds, woman!” I commanded. “Move! There has been a change on top. The Adversary is now in charge!”
Born in Ukraine and currently residing in California, Elana Gomel is an academic with a long list of books and articles, an award-winning writer, and a professional nomad. She has taught and researched in Israel, Italy, and the US, and is known in the academy for her (purely theoretical) interest in serial killers, alien invasions, and rebellious AIs. She is the author of more than a hundred stories, several novellas, and six novels of dark fantasy and science fiction. Her latest fiction publications are the dark fairy tale Nightwood and Girl of Light, a historical fantasy.