Carrion and the Dragon.
Rating:PG-13 for discussion of assassination and death.
Summary:On the eve of Princess Boa's wedding, Christopher Carrion makes a murderous deal with a being even more evil than himself.
Disclaimer and Thanks:I do not own Abarat or any of its characters, names, or places. Those are all the intellectual property of the enormously talented Clive Barker, and Abarat is the property of Joanna Cotler Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishing. I'm merely borrowing the characters and world for this short story, and I'm making absolutely ZERO monetary benefit from this. Thanks go to Greg Samsa for his encouragement for this fanfiction.
He had been climbing on the glassy black slopes of Iniquisit's mountain for a long time.
Smeared with black dust, Christopher Carrion hung by his fingertips for a moment longer, arm muscles straining, feet digging and sliding about for a toehold. His right foot managed to find purchase on a spiky spur of rock, and he resumed his climb downward.
The tall towers of Iniquisit loomed hundreds of feet above him, their long, narrow windows shedding a putrescent greenish light down onto the slick, marble-hard cliff face. There were several safer passages down the mountain, but Carrion wished no one to see him, and most of all he wished for no one to follow him. So he had chosen to laboriously climb down the sheer, steep rocks, like a lizard crawling on a dungeon wall. His robe of werewolf fur was becoming stained and torn, his fingers were bleeding and his toes beginning to blister inside his boots.
But he had to set an important appointment. That was the only thought in his mind.
The Night was cold and windy; howling gusts blew against the rocks and then screamed onward, barely losing any speed. They carried with them the damp, salty smell of the Izabella, and the stench of the rotting fish and trash of Gorgossium's harbors and seaside towns. The smell made Carrion's nostrils wrinkle, and taking only shallow breaths, he stopped for rest on a jutting lip of stone that thrust out into the wind and the blackness.
He sat down, clutching at the collar of his robe and drawing its dark folds about his throat. The cold was making his nose run; he took a little silver flask from a clip on his belt, uncorked it, and drank its contents in one eager gulp. The brandy burned his throat as it slid down to warm the pit of his stomach.
Wiping his lips on his filthy sleeve, Carrion looked up to the stars high above, and the moon hanging in the dark sky, yellow and curved like an animal's fang, veiled in crimson mist, and he spent some pity on himself and wept for his bitterness and grief; the cruel absurdity of his life.
After this solitary, selfish mourning was done, he took up the empty flask again and hooked it to his belt. His long, bony fingers wiped at the corpse-cold flesh of his cheeks, drying his tears, and as he prepared to continue his journey he noticed a small, brackish puddle of water that occupied a cavity in the stone.
Carrion moved over to sit beside it, and was surprised when a little larval creature poked its head up from the water, regarding him. The thing's head was pale and bare, its murky eyes had the slit pupils of a cat, and its mouth was lipless and broad. It had no nose, only vertical slashes for nostrils, and they flared at the cold air as it gazed dumbly at the Midnight Prince.
As he stared at it, utterly revolted, Carrion caught a glimpse of his own reflection in the surface of the puddle—and he realized that the thing in the water bore a disturbing resemblance to the Lord of Midnight himself.
It was hideous.
Carrion snarled, grabbed the empty brandy flask from his belt, and brought it down hard into the puddle, seeking to crush the creature, but the thing evaded him, squirming out of the water on fleshy vestigial limbs. It scurried away to some crevice in the stones where Carrion could not reach it.
His scarred lips drawn back in a petulant grimace, Carrion exhaled heavily, seething with fury and hate, and threw the flask over the side of the ledge, where it clattered and tumbled off into the darkness. He wanted more than anything to hurt someone to gain something back for the injuries that had been done to him.
Instead, he began to climb downward yet again, cooling his heart with the promise of due vengeance.
As he crawled, the cold rock began to grow warm under his fingers, until finally, when he reached another ledge that was far broader and thicker than the first, the stones of the mountain were so hot that he could feel the waves of heat coming off them. Even through the thick soles of his boots, his feet were blistering.
He moved on around the ledge's corner, until at last his bloodied fingers and squinting eyes found what he had been searching for—a deep gash in the mountainside, about the height of a tall man. Reeking fumes—the stench of brimstone—poured from the jagged gash, and it was lit from within by a flickering orange glow, as if there were a fire burning deep within the bowels of Iniquisit's mountain.
Carrion stepped inside.
He found himself in a long, low chamber. Rough stone brushed against his shoulders and arms. The ground was treacherously uneven and clogged with rubble. A foul stench of smoke nearly choked Carrion to death; pressing a sleeve against his nose, he moved on, knowing that if he fell unconscious, he would perish where he lay.
His filthy robes became so soaked with sweat that he soon threw them down onto the ground, and walked on.
At last, after much fumbling about in the smoky, sweltering darkness, which was lit dimly by a flickering light, he suddenly staggered into a vast chamber. After the long, claustrophobic moments of hunching in darkness, Carrion nearly fell to his knees. This cavern was higher and wider than any great chamber in the fortress of Iniquisit, and at its center there was a bubbling pool of magma.
But it was the display of glittering wealth around the pool that drew Carrion's watery gaze. Heaps and heaps, tons and tons, of gold and silver and brass and steel. Swords, shields, cups, crowns; rings and bracelets studded with pearls and gems. . . Chests filled to bursting with coins that were eons old. . . Items of incalculable value from every corner of the Abarat. . .
And Carrion stood on the edge of the abyss, watching as a dragon rose out of the seething pool.
Bright droplets of molten slag were thrown in every direction as Gravainia Pavonine, fourth in line of succession to the Scaly Throne, surfaced. His scales were red and purple, glowing hot and iridescent. A massive crown of bony spikes rose from his brow, covered with diamond-hard scales that were hued gold and silver.
Here was the pinnacle of dragonly royalty.
With a claw curved like a meat-hook, the dragon flicked a glowing bit of slag off his shoulder, as though in parody of a child bathing in a tub. "Ah, that burned off the parasites..." he said languidly. His voice was the deepest that Carrion had ever heard; the stones shook when he spoke.
With one massive, clawed forelimb, Pavonine reached up and scooped a large pile of his stolen wealth into the magma. He then leaned his head down and drank the melting mass as it sank into the pool. "Delicious."
"Royal One!" Carrion shouted, his voice echoing hollowly in the great cavern, "I, the Lord of Midnight, have come with a request to be made!"
Pavonine turned his fire-bright eyes onto Carrion. "A request? Who comes to beg a favor from me?" His eyes, golden with flecks of blood-red near their black pupils, narrowed. Smoke poured from his nostrils and curled up to wreathe his head. "The Lord of Midnight, you claim?" A deep dragon-laugh shook the mountain to its very foundations. "You are the Lord of Midnight? Well, I am the Lord of this bath-chamber, and I alone shall say whether you shall live or die in here. You, little food-prey, have... disturbed me."
"But I have a request for you, Lord Pavonine," Carrion said, refusing to allow the creature to see his fear, for indeed he felt frightened, "I have a request that you kill another, that I may be avenged."
The dragon reared up and placed a forelimb on his scaly breast, in a melodramatic parody of personal offense. "A request for murder? Perish the thought." Teeth as long as sword-blades flashed, molten metal dripping from their points, as he asked hungrily, "Who do you wish me to kill, Carrion? Never before have you or your fathers asked for my services. . ."
Carrion reached into a pouch on his belt. His searching fingers found a small object attached to a chain, and he drew it out. It was a silver portrait locket.
Slowly, almost hesitantly, he flipped the locket's case open.
The portrait of a young woman with long black hair smiled back at him. Her full red lips, so soft and beautiful, were curved in a mysterious smile, as though the painter had caught her at a moment when she was remembering something dear to her. Her eyes shone brightly, full of life and happiness.
Carrion closed his eyes. The Princess did not know of the pain that she had caused him, and he wondered if she would even care if she did know. She did not love him, he knew, because Christopher Carrion was ugly and foul and disgusting; he was a creature that had crawled from the slime-puddles of Gorgossium, calling himself the 'Lord of Midnight'!
He was nothing to her.
He threw the picture over the edge of the pit with a sharp, sudden movement, and Pavonine caught the locket's chain on the tip of a single claw. A rumble of laughter bubbled from his throat as he studied the portrait—then the dragon threw the little locket into his open mouth. It disappeared instantly.
Carrion made a soft, painful sound at the sight. He had treasured that picture of Boa for uncounted Hours, dreaming of the day when he would welcome her into Iniquisit—she dressed in her finest gown, adorned with gems and jewelry—as his wife. She would have been his and he would have been hers, and anything that her heart could have desired, he would have given to her, freely and happily. . .
But no. She had not wanted him, nor anything that he could offer, and that rejection hurt as painfully now as it ever had before.
"The Princess Boa," the dragon said, licking thin, fire-blackened lips. "You are bold, Carrion. Why do you wish to murder such a slip of a girl, and such a lovely one, at that? Is your black heart so rotten with sin that you must blot out every comely thing upon these Islands?"
Carrion looked up, teeth clenched and bared, reddened eyes running over with tears. "My motives," he rasped, "are not yours to analyze! Rest assured that if you do kill her, you will have my full protection and—and my everlasting gratitude. She must die, worm. She will die. And I know that you will kill her, for your kind enjoys murder and destruction. I know you well."
Pavonine gave Carrion a terrible, sardonic smile. "I cannot deny your keen insight, Lord Carrion. I think that I will choose to do as you ask. This girl will be a sweet morsel—"
"NO!" Carrion's vehemence startled the dragon, who splashed up magma upon the back walls of the cave. "You shall not eat her. You shall not mutilate her corpse in any way! Her flesh is to be unspoilt." A pause; then, softer: "Leave her for her bridegroom to see, and to mourn the day that he stole her away from her true beloved." To himself, Carrion muttered, "He will mourn. . ."
"No after-assassination snack? No bite of tender meat?" Pavonine looked insulted.
"I will kill you myself," Carrion said, staring into the fire-worm's yellow eyes, "if I hear even a rumor that you have disobeyed my orders."
The dragon must have weighed Carrion's threats and found them heavy enough to be convincing, for he nodded his crested head in assent. "As you wish, Lord of Midnight. Where shall I find this Princess of yours?"
"The Isle of the Nonce. Three O'Clock. She will be wed there...in the ancient Palace of Bowers." He hung his head.
After a moment of silence, Pavonine spoke. "You are a wicked man, Carrion. Far more wicked than I. But mark my words, and hold them as true: you will come to regret this action in time, when you lie upon your bed and feel your years creeping up upon you. . . You will hear her voice in your ears, and see her face out of the corners of your eyes, and you will weep when you think of what you have done."
Carrion's knees buckled, and he had to catch himself against the wall to keep from falling forward. His eyes were stinging once again with tears, and in his throat was the word that had caused his furious grandmother to stitch his lips together, when he had once dared to speak it. Love me, he thought, with this loathsome face, with these scarred, punctured lips—a mouth she would never have condescended to kiss! I am too hideous for anyone to ever love—and even if they were blind, they would still despise me!
He wanted to cry out in despair, for what was a life without love? But he would not humiliate himself anymore than he already had in front of Gravainia Pavonine. Tears and mourning, after all, were for the moments when no one was watching him; the times when he was alone.
He looked up at the dragon-prince, and asked, "And what of you, worm? Do you feel regret? Pity? Guilt?"
Pavonine's smile became a cruel sneer. "Of course not, for I do not have a conscience—not the merest ghostly scrap of one. But you do, Carrion; locked somewhere deep within your heart, you do. And it will torment you the rest of your days. I must admit that that thought amuses me—and it will help keep me warm as I fly for the Nonce."
With that, the dragon sank back into the pool. His scales began to glow brightly as they again came in contact with the magma, and he dived down until finally the curving spikes of his head-crest were gone. After that, only a few bubbles of air from the dragon's huge lungs came up to the surface to pop open, hissing and oozing steam.
Carrion stood there, swaying dizzily on his feet. Were it not for the fact that his stomach was empty (for it was far past the time for dinner in Iniquisit), he would have been vomiting onto the smoking ground. As it was, only a thin trickle of bile rose up to his mouth, sour and hot on his tongue. His hairless skin prickled as if his grandmother's accursed needles were piercing him all over.
Deep within, he could not suppress a chill of horror at the knowledge of what he had ordered the dragon-prince to do.
Damn Pavonine; damn that beast! Carrion's lips peeled back from his yellow teeth. Damn this troubled heart of his, too. He had not thought until now that his conscience was still alive, but it was, and now it screamed at him, "Murderer, murderer! You will lose her, fool! Her corpse will be laid inside a tomb of marble, and you will never see her again. Worms will eat her flesh in the dark. You will only have your memories to comfort you, and a cold comfort they will be. You are damned!"
"I know it," he whispered in reply. "I know it. And it is now too late."
Carrion turned, and stumbled out of the dragon's cavern with all the grace of a blind drunkard, bruising and scraping himself bloody. As he stepped out into the cold, windy Gorgossian Night, he briefly contemplated casting himself over the edge of the cliff. Perhaps he would meet Boa soon in the afterlife, and he would beg for her forgiveness and explain his decisions to her. Surely then, she would understand him, and empathize with him. . .
But he did not take his own life. Instead, he sought out safe toeholds on the mountainside, and he began the long climb upwards, to the mountain's summit and the fortress of Iniquisit.
With his scales smoking and fires burning under his tongue, Gravainia Pavonine exited the mountain through a relatively narrow gash in its side, close to the foot-hills but far from any of the small drab towns and serf-fields where Carrion's thralls lived and labored.
He twisted, squirming to get free, multilingual obscenities hissing out from between clenched fangs, then with a dip of his right wing and shoulder he was out. Steam rolled off his body in hissing sheets when the cold mists rising off the Izabella touched him, and slowly the brilliant glow of his scales faded, as a burning coal's red light fades and blackens when it has been pulled from the fire.
Pavonine stretched his wings, flexing their ligaments, letting the cold sea-winds fill the billowing flaps of skin that stretched between the elongated finger-bones. The cold would stiffen their joints and musculature somewhat, and make flying more difficult and tiresome, but he was eager to claim such an illustrious and beautiful prey, and the residual heat of the Gorgossian fires would keep his blood warm and flowing fast in his veins.
With a huge swoop of his wings, he lifted off, catching a great gust of wind that carried him far from the Midnight Isle's shores, and on towards the Hours of Day.