Dragons are elemental power incarnate, much as gods are concentrations of divine power. While the nature of divinity quickly coalesces around sentience and order, elemental power opts for the physical and the chaotic. As a result, they arrive on the scene earlier and terrorize those that come later.
Almost every world has dragons. Those that do not invent them.
-- Amandar's Great Big Book of Divine Power
"Any sign of it?" asked Rust, inspecting the horizon. Behind him, Storm had his hands raised aloft, sampling the hot air of the red-lit world. A little way off, Sand dragged her fingertips along the gray and black cinders. She had to touch the ground in order to read it, and already the ash was clinging to her hands and the hem of her gown. She was not happy.
"Storm, I said . . ." repeated Rust.
"I heard you," snapped Storm. Storm could feel the interruption of the Dragon's passage in the otherwise natural pattern of winds. Rust thought Storm had been at it long enough.
"Sand?" said Rust, his voice softening a little.
The desert goddess was equally frustrated, her smooth face drawn. "I've got nothing. The motes here are phenomenally unresponsive."
The world itself had no name, so far as any of them knew. It was not long removed from creation, and the sun was still a bloated red ball hovering near the horizon. Rust guessed that despite the heat they must be near one of the poles, in the cooler regions of this world.
The land itself was a blasted landscape of cinders and ash, marked with streams of orange red lava, still cooling into great, rocky rafts that would someday be continents. There had been enough time and weather to produce dust and dirt, and even that was scorching to the touch.
As gods they were unharmed by the ambient heat, which is not to say that they were comfortable.
"Crummy world anyway," muttered Sand, brushing the dust from her hands. "Doesn't tell me anything. Can't even manage to raise a good djinn from it." She twisted her hand and a small whirlwind scampered over, its supposedly humanoid torso little more than a spherical lump at its top. It looked like a black cinder ice cream cone. The failed djinn circled the three of them like a mewling cat, until Sand dispelled it with another twist of the wrist.
It's because of the Dragon," said Rust. "Its very passage pulls the inherent chaos, the basic liveliness from objects. I can feel the resistance to my own destructive forces."
"Making excuses already?" smirked Storm.
"You're not listening," said Sand, looking serious, "Rust didn't say we were getting weaker. He said the dragon was getting stronger."
"Stronger. Fricken great," said Storm. " Hang on -- I got something. Odd low-pressure trough. This way."
"I think everything is to the south, from here," said Rust.
"This way, Rusty," said Storm.
Rust slung the capture jar on its strap over his shoulder and followed Storm and Sand to the relative south.
"Why do you think it came here?" asked Sand, not expecting an answer. "Why this world?"
"It likes the balmy climate?" said Storm.
"It could have gone anywhere," said Rust. "But a young world, one whose molecules and motes is new, would give it power faster. It would let it become real, and more dangerous."
"Well, thank you, Perfessor," muttered Storm.
Rust pulled up short. "What is THAT supposed to mean?"
"If I wanted to play 'Mr. Science,' I would have gone along with Hammer's group, that's all," said Storm.
Sand huffed and hooked her arm into Rust's arm "Well, I for one LIKE knowing what's going on," she said, looking sharply at Storm.
Despite himself, Rust smiled. Storm looked away, but Rust could see sparks dancing at the edge of his eyebrows.
Sand leaned against Rust said, "Don't pay attention to him. Weather gods are just complete . . ." She pursed her soft lips, looking for the right word, " . . . .volt-heads . . . .sometimes."
Rust wanted to say something, but he was interrupted by Storm's bellow.
"I think it came this way!" he shouted.
Storm pointed down to a large raft of grayish magma, slightly cooler than the surrounding areas. On the raft were the wrecked remains of metallic buildings.
Apparently life had come early, if briefly, to this world.
Rust and the others clambered down the ashen hillside raft, which jutted out into a lake of glowing liquid iron. The buildings were several stories tall and obviously made of sentient design. They were surrounded by low carbonized lumps that had once been the inhabitants.
Sand rested a hand on the lumps. It crumbled at her touch. "These had once been alive," she said. "They have more energy than the rest of the land."
"Opinions, Perfessor?" said Storm.
Rust shrugged. "Fire elementals? Salamanders? Asphalt Dwarves? Maybe something from another dimension. Hammer could probably tell us. Pity she isn't . . ."
He cut short his thought when he looked at Sand. She was scowling at the stump of carbonized creature, then got up and walked toward the iron lake.
He turned back to Storm. "Have a read on our creature?"
It was Storm's turn to scowl. He held his hands up. Then he waited for a moment and brought them down. "Weird."
"Definite disturbance in the winds up to here, then . . . nada," said Storm. "Think it could have jumped to another dimension?"
"Probably not yet," said Rust, "It'll be more powerful now, but it shouldn't be able to move like that yet."
"Well, it's not here," said Storm.
Rust started to say something, but he was interrupted by the sound of a steel waterfall and Sand's shout.
The Dragon had hidden beneath the surface of the lake and now his huge head rose from those molten depths, rising up above Sand.
It had changed in the brief time since it had escaped. Not only had it lost its shadowy nature and was a solid thing, but also red slathered its scales of hardened black magma. A fierce glow of fire and hatred lit its eyes from within.
Both Rust and Storm shouted as they ran for the young goddess. The beast opened its maw, and all could hear it pull in a huge breath.
Rust halted in his tracks and threw up a shield between them and the Great Beast. It was not a solid shield, but rather a patch of air, from which he had pulled the momentum of every atom.
The deadened molecules dropped slowly to the planet's surface as the Dragon breathed out black fire.
The light made it through, and with it some of the heat. Rust ran to where Sand and Storm were in a tumbled heap in the gray dust.
"Idiot!" snarled Sand at Storm. "I could have taken care of him!"
"You said yourself you couldn't make stuff out of this crap," shouted Storm.
"Not the soil, volt-head, but the people! Their ashes!"
Rust reached them and heard the deep wheeze of the dragons' lungs again. He spun and pulled up another entropic shield, just as the dragon let loose another belch.
"Hey, that burns!" said Storm, the ends of his hair glowing with heat.
"Be happy it does only that!" shouted Rust. "Without the shield, it would fry your godly form to cinders! Now hit it!"
Sand was already turning toward the remnants of the settlement, and as she motioned, they eroded quickly, forming into a great whirlwind. She gave a sharp head nod, and the whirlwind engulfed the Dragon.
It might as well have engulfed a mountain for all the damage it did. The dragon's wings now blossomed and it pulled itself entirely out of the metal lake, blotting the ever-setting sun. It could not rise farther -- the whirlwind was holding it down.
"Watch a professional!" shouted Storm, and threw his arms wide. A great bolt of energy blossomed before him, streaking toward the rising dragon. The bolt struck the dragon square in the chest, and Rust blinked as the world went blue-white for a moment.
And when his sight returned, the dragon was still there, unscathed.
"It didn't work!" said Storm, shocked. "That was a Babel-tower level bolt and it didn't work."
The Dragon buffeted its great wings, breaking up the whirlwind into a series of small funnel clouds, then lunged forward, jaws wide, straight for Storm.
Rust ran this time, barreling fully into the thunder god, knocking Storm to the ground. The dragon's jaws closed and its head pulled up toward the overcast iron sky.
Only a single being lay on the ground. Storm.
Sand ran up to the fallen god and shouted, "Rust. Where?"
"He pushed me . . ." Storm stammered, "The Dragon was going to eat me and he . . ."
Sand frowned and regathered her whirlwind. "Okay, we can handle this."
"It ate him," muttered Storm, shaking his head. "It went after me but it ate him."
"A little help up here!" came the shout from above, and Storm looked up, both shocked and smiling.
The Dragon couldn't lift off the ground in the middle of Storm's whirlwind. But in the dragon's mouth stood Rust, feet on the creature's lower jaw, hands on the upper jaw, holding the beast's mouth open.
Rust's cloths were smoking now from the heat, and deep within the dragon's gullet he could see the brimstone furnaces that fired its breath. They were heating up again. He was surviving now only because of the shield of near-absolute entropy close to his skin.
The capture jar was still slung over his shoulder. If he reached for it, the jaws would close and it would be over. But if he didn't go for the jar, the dragon's next breath would overwhelm him.
Even a personal shield of dead air molecules would not reduce the heat at this range.
"Any time now!" he bellowed at the others.
"Dammit, I can't do anything to it!" shouted Storm. He was panicking now, flinging bolt after bolt into the restraining whirlwind. "It isn't taking any damage!"
"In its mouth!" shouted Rust. "Bolts and whirlwinds! Aim for the mouth!"
Rust felt his skin prickle as the storm god suddenly focused his attack on him, and the whirlwind from Sand poured into the beast's open gullet.
Then with the practiced skill of a young lord of entropy, he pulled all the kinetic motion out of the sand and let the lightning bolts fuse it into a solid lump, directly over the brimstone furnaces of the creatures' stomach.
The Great Beast thrashed and rolled on the lava raft, tossing Rust to one side in its convulsions. Rust fell like a smoking comet, but rolled where he struck. He ran toward Sand and Storm.
"He's plugged up!" shouted Rust. "Hit him in the belly!"
Sand focused her whirlwind into a tight cone, and launched it, framed by Storm's lightning. Shards of glass formed at the edges of the funnel cloud and smote the dragon square at the front of the neck.
The Great Dragon exploded like a black diamond into its component motes, and the pole of the unnamed planet blossomed like an ebony flower. And when it was done, only the three gods were left standing.
It was a large dragon, and so it took a long time to gather up all the bits. Sand took care of the bulk of it, crossing and recrossing the area to make sure she had got even the smallest mote. Rust, his garments still smoldering, helped. Storm stood a little way off, staring into the lake of fire.
"He took that pretty hard," said Sand, looking at him.
"He does one thing real well," said Rust. "It is a horrible thing to realize that it doesn't always work."
"I'll go talk to him," said Sand. She looked at Rust and let out a sigh. "You know, I think he IS cute. For a volt-head."
Rust watched her walk over to the sulking thunder god, and wondered if he had won or lost in all this. Then he sighed and patted the capture jar.
Win. A definite win.
"I hope the others are having an easier time of this," he said aloud.
To be continued...