Viporis must thrive, for we live within—without it, we would be lost.
Viporis’s irises narrowed on the herd. The farmer lounged under the shade of a willow tree, a few feet away from where the sheep grazed. Deep within its belly, Viporis felt the flames brewing, waiting for release as it drew its wings tight against its body, diving towards the clouds speckled among the grass like a hawk homing in on its prey.
A messenger ran towards we who live within Viporis, sliding its way down Viporis’s esophagus, shouting, “Preparations! Preparations!” Its glowing body shimmered with an urgent fervor.
We gravitated towards one another like magnets. Our bodies rippled, shivered in anticipation. We always welcomed the messenger’s presence, because it meant Viporis required our services. Our ears perked, hearing the inspiring strength that laced the messenger’s voice.
“Twenty seconds!” The messenger weaved around us.
Our chamber pulsed as we shuffled and moved, conjuring the flames that Viporis would need for its meal. Steam expelled from our bodies. We felt the pressure building within us—a call from Viporis.
The surrounding temperature continued to rise. Our skins burned and peeled away. We became flickering fire, licking up the spaces where we once stood apart. Power surged through our formless bodies, and we revelled in the feeling.
The edges of our flames met, and we sacrificed our individualism to become something greater than ourselves, understanding this was the sole reason for our existence. Our collective flame increased in size, threatening to burst out of the chamber that contained us.
The messenger hurried back up the esophagus—its voice echoing.
We shot up after the messenger, past Viporis’s forked tongue, nicked its ivory teeth, pushed past its lips, and hurdled towards the clouds scattering in shock. We took no notice of the farmer who cowered behind the rocking tree. We worried only about our duty—to scorch the flesh and bones that would become Viporis’s sustenance.
Our bodies reached the herd and burned away at their wool, their tender flesh. When there was no more to be had, we looked around one last time before dissipating into the air, relieved of our duties. Though we were no longer a part of Viporis, we knew the next generation of flames would serve it well. It was a reassuring thought as our spark died down to nothing.
Viporis landed on burnt grass, the corpses of sheep surrounding its body. The farmer was long gone, having left his once great herd. All was silent except for the scraping of Viporis’s claws as it snatched up the sheep. Viporis tossed its meal into its mouth, sometimes chewing, sometimes swallowing the bodies whole.
We swayed from side to side as the chamber rumbled, threatening to jostle us, tossing us into chaos. Our edges sloshed up against the inner lining of Viporis’s stomach before settling back down, only to splash and crash against each other the next moment. There was always an instant of fear, but also hungry desire, before the next meal entered.
We braced ourselves, each other, as pieces of flesh and bone entered our home, along with almost complete bodies of cattle. The larger parts were always more difficult to break down. Sometimes, we wondered whether Viporis cared for its health. It was difficult for us to understand Viporis’s thoughts, even when the messenger carried them to us.
“No time to eat slowly today! We need to work faster. Viporis will take off in ten minutes. We don’t want it to cramp in flight!” shouted the messenger before it scurried off towards Viporis’s mind again.
Easier said than done, we thought. We pushed our liquid mass to cover the scorched mammals, dissolving raw muscle with our body. Like a tsunami we rose, then crashed, rose again, crashed again, until no pieces remained. Our waves calmed to an almost standstill, waiting for Viporis to take to the air. Did we do enough? Were we quick enough? It was hard to say.
As Viporis neared a snow-capped mountain, the clouds felt cool passing through its scales. Although it had its meal only an hour ago, it felt light. Viporis tensed when a form heading towards it materialized. Another dragon, but one with poison-tipped claws and teeth. It would be fatal to engage in a confrontation, but this was a territory invader. Viporis felt the fire brewing inside and picked up the pace of its flight, heading straight for the enemy.
“Alert! Alert! Detection of injury! The enemy is moving quickly!” the messenger shouted. Its voice carried to all sectors within Viporis.
We, an army of almost luminous spheres, flew towards the enemy that entered the open wound between Viporis’s scales. They were multiplying quickly, faster than any enemy we had ever seen or encountered. We knew that today, we would lose many, if not all.
I looked around at my kin. There was no fear, because it honoured us to defend Viporis with our lives. But why did I feel such terror as we surged towards the looming darkness that far outnumbered us?
The enemy consumed us faster than we could swallow them, and soon there were only a handful of us left.
As I perished, I couldn’t help but feel that our defeat was my fault, even as we fell together.
Viporis returned to the scorched land where the sheep had lazily grazed, now thrashing its body, scrapping at the clouds in its wounds. It wondered if this was the pain the sheep felt when its flames met their flesh, the same way the poison now worked its way under Viporis’s armour.
Its heart breaths slowed. Viporis’s heavy lids fell.
The messenger sat in Viporis’s mind, knowing that the rest were no doubt in a state of panic. It had to fulfil its duties. Yet, it couldn’t remember what its responsibilities were, and that was the most frightening thought of all.
About the author:
Ai Jiang is a Chinese-Canadian writer, an immigrant from Fujian, and an active member of HWA. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in F&SF, The Dark, PseudoPod, Jellyfish Review, Hobart Pulp, The Masters Review, among others. Find her on Twitter (@AiJiang_) and online (http://aijiang.ca).