1. A Whole New World

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Morg surveyed the tattered sky with a light heart. Sunlight, bright and golden, sheeted through the tears, painting the forest emerald and verdigris. Lakes shone like sapphires, and granite boulders were covered in sparkling facets. The world was full of splendor. Morg was reminded of how the Great Serpent had brought the world into being, crafting the heavens and earth out of the formless void. It was the first tale every hatchling heard, and there was none more sacred among dragonkind.

Once, before the turn of time, the Great Serpent was preparing to spawn. She gazed out upon the emptiness of the Great Between but found no fit place to lay her brood.

I will make a new world, said the Great Serpent. It will be a world of tooth and bone so that the flesh of my flesh will ever live by fang and claw.

From her right fore-talon the Great Serpent plucked a single claw. From her upper jaw she tore a rending tooth. She fused them together with the fire of her breath and, with seven strokes of her mighty tail, hammered them into a disc. She hung the disc in the Great Between and called it the Moon. But when the Great Serpent beheld the cold starkness of the Moon, she found it wanting. For of what worth was dominion without desire to illuminate it?

Though they become fierce and mighty, in such a place they will come to hate Us, thought the Great Serpent. I will make a new world. It will be a world of fire and radiance so the flesh of my flesh will ever burn with the zeal of life.

The Great Serpent plucked a golden filament from her fire-heart and spun it into a seven-stranded braid which she wove into a radiant orb. She hung the orb opposite the moon and called it the Sun. But when the Great Serpent beheld the fiery effulgence of the Sun, she found it wanting. For of what worth was life-zeal without knowledge to temper it?

Though they ever burn with the fire of life, in such a place they will come to forget Us, thought the Great Serpent. I will make a new world. It will be a many-wondered place so the flesh of my flesh will ever live in awe and reverence of Us.

Then the Great Serpent selected five of the choicest scales from her breast: an amethyst for the sky, a sapphire for the oceans, an emerald for the forests, a diamond for the heights, and a black diamond for the depths. She added seven drops of blood and fused them together with the fire of her breath. With the skill of her claws, she molded it. With the strength of her tail, she tempered it. For a timeless time and an ageless age, the Great Serpent was about her labors. To this day, the sparks of that forging still shimmer in the Great Between.

At long last, the Great Serpent cooled her new creation with the wind of her wings and hung it in its proper place between the Sun and the Moon. She gave it the name of World, for it was a world to surpass all other worlds, vast and wondrous beyond all reckoning. Much pleased, the Great Serpent descended from the heights and spawned her eggs upon the World where they would be warmed by the heart-radiance of the Sun and cooled by the bone-light of the Moon. Much exhausted, the Great Serpent rested from her labors.

But when that other serpent, whose name was Worm, beheld what the Great Serpent had wrought, he was consumed with jealousy. Whilst the Great Serpent slept, he descended upon the World for to destroy it. But Worm, being inferior, had not the power to unmake what had been so skillfully wrought from scale, blood and fire. Neither could he find the Great Serpent's eggs, for she had hidden them in a dark and secret place. In great bitterness of heart, Worm broke off seven poisonous barbs from his tail, soaked them in gall, and planted them in a deep furrow by the sea. These were the names of the seven barbs: Rot, Rust, Tarnish, Mildew, Death, Decay and Ruin. In the full ripening of time, the eggs of the Great Serpent hatched, and her progeny, the dragons, grew up strong and mighty in her image. But the barbs also grew up and bore seeds, and wherever the seeds fell, they poisoned the waters and blighted the land.

When the Great Serpent awoke from her hibernation, she discovered what Worm had done and bound him by the most terrible of curses. Because he had acted out of jealousy, his punishment would be in kind. Evermore would he hunger after the moon, but though he devour it day by day, he would never be sated; he would retch it back up again in a never-ending cycle.

As for the Worm's poisonous barbs, the Great Serpent dared not uproot them for their roots had burrowed deep and their seeds had been scattered far and wide. Yet they could not be allowed to flourish unchecked lest they corrupt all that had been so lovingly wrought. So the Great Serpent set the Sun and the Moon in motion so there would be night and day. She caused the north and the south winds to blow, marking off the seasons. She sent the rain and the drought in their turn, the baking heat and the bitter cold. To everything there would be a time, a cycle and a season. When a leaf fell to the ground, another would bud from the limb. When a beast perished, another would spring forth from the womb.

This done, the Great Serpent dipped her claw in the Sun and touched it to the throat of each dragon so a piece of her own flame would burn eternal within them. With fire, dragons could resist the blight of the Worm and endure through the ages. To them she gave the noble task of safeguarding all that was most pure and precious for the coming time of renewal when the World would be purged by fire and restored to its preeminent place amongst the jewels of the heavens.

Morg reflected proudly upon his treasures. Of gold, silver and jewels there was an abundance—such was expected of him—but what other dragon could boast such a rare and distinctive collection of manling shells? When the Great Serpent gathered up her progeny at the end of days, he was sure to be made a prince among dragons. But Morg was in no great hurry for that time to come. He was in the prime of his strength, and there was much work left to be done. Another manling harvest was just beginning.

As the familiar nests of the manling colony came into view, Morg caught a metallic glint on the ground. A soldier's carapace perhaps? On second look, it was far too small and flat. Disappointment gave way to mild curiosity. If it was a silver piece, what was it doing out in the open? Manlings closely hoarded their treasures and did not leave them lying around.

He landed nearby and carefully levered the object out of the dirt, revealing a silver disk bearing the image of a fox. It was no great find. He had piles of such trinkets back in his lair. Still, he could always find room for one more. Mindful not to scratch it, he pried open a scale on the back of his claw and wedged it in tight. With the silver disk safely secured, he now turned his attention to the colony.

He found himself at one end of a dirt path leading between two rows of wooden nests with some charred gaps between them. Although the manlings were nowhere to be seen, there were fresh tracks in the dirt, and smoke trails were still rising from some of the remaining nests.

He sniffed the air, hoping to catch the oily tang of a soldier amid the rotting fruit smell of the lesser manlings. But the vile stench that assaulted his nares was something altogether different. It was so acrid it made his eyes burn, yet so deliciously fatty it caused his mouth to water.

He turned in thedirection of the smell. Barely two wingspans away, a creature gazed up at himwith large, melancholy eyes. It was one of the short-haired caribou that, likecertain types of birds and boars, thrived in and around manling colonies. Theywere shorter than the carrier beasts and slower of hoof and mind, but they didhave their redeeming traits: they were plump and delicious. Suddenly, Morg wasreminded of just how hungry he was.

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