The Dragon of Tarileel is a Phantomworlds short story that takes place about eight years before The Misfits of Kiftre Deep. At this time, Ambassador Admorc is fighting to rescue from the phantoms, a primitive planet called Tarileel.
© Sarah Mankowski
The Tyrannosaurus rex menaced forward, stretched wide its powerful jaws and bellowed.
Young Nychols strained his neck, eyes wide with wonder. He started counting rapidly, determined to know the exact number of bone-crushing teeth.
Powerful jaws snapped shut. The virtual dinosaur vanished.
“Repeat!” the boy demanded. At eight Earth-years of age, Nychols could recite the names and habits of every ferocious species on fifty worlds. He felt a special pride knowing that some of the biggest monsters once roamed the ancestral home of humans.
The automated tutor intoned, “Students are limited to twenty repeats.”
“Ah, just one more,” he begged.
Ambassador Admorc’s big rodent-like face popped into view, floating lifelike before his eyes. His furry ears twitched, sharp teeth were bared in annoyance. Nychols knew not how, but the Hawthipian managed to monitor his studies while meeting with Alliance diplomats. He said, “If you want to experience the late Cretaceous period of Earth, go outside and inhale Tarileel.”
“Tarileel doesn’t have dinosaurs,” he complained.
“Would I tell you to go outside if there were dinosaurs?” the ambassador snapped. “Run along and play.”
Ambassador Admorc had purchased him as an orphaned infant on Vil; Nychols was required to do as he was told. Argument was pointless. He went into a pleasant bedroom and put on his “outdoor” shoes. The specially-designed footwear was interwoven with nanosensors that disrupted phantom technology. He was forbidden to remove them outside.
The boy raced up three flights of stairs and emerged onto the roof of the sprawling complex that housed Alliance diplomats. With no playmates his age, he decided to stalk a bot that was trimming the carefully manicured vegetation. He hid behind an ornate planter, peeped out, watched, and then eased forward.
A familiar voice croaked, “What is your game, young human?”
Nychols walked over to a graveled area with benches and fountain. Here, his new friend Taeto the pilot cleaned a tiny solar-powered glide. Taeto was scarcely a meter in height, and covered with polished gray scales. He squatted on folded hind legs. Nimble fingers on the short pair of arms tightened a bolt while the longer arms adjusted the wings. “Well, young human?” he croaked.
“That’s not really a bot,” Nychols said, confidentially. “It’s hex. Phantoms, you see. They’re spying on the diplomats.”
“Ah. That’s the game.” Taeto was from Novop, and of a species that was well-regarded as pilots: nimble, keen eyed and trustworthy.
“Wish I could stay inside and look at dinosaurs,” Nychols complained. He gave the pilot a detailed description of Tyrannosaurus rex, concluding, “Earth was like Tarileel back then. Extra oxygen, see. But nothing like T. rex ever lived on Tarileel.”
“Once, maybe,” Taeto croaked. “I saw a big jawbone from the air.”
Nychols looked at the pilot with eager interest. “Where?”
“To the west. In the mountains.”
He must see that jawbone! How? The ambassador was always in meetings.
As though reading his mind, the pilot said, “If Ambassador Admorc will give permission, I can fly you over there tomorrow morning.”
“Mean it!” With gratitude, Nychols reached for the pilot’s nearest hand.
Taeto leapt back. “Take care, young human. The grease on my scales will burn your soft skin. For your safety, you must never touch me.”
Nychols took the warning in stride. Acclimated to life among life forms with unusual requirements, habits and customs, he gave such things little thought. Anyway, how could one expect species from wildly different worlds to behave the same?
When Ambassador Admorc returned to their rooms late that evening, he was not alone. A diplomat from Lorsh, round and toothy, walked beside the riser. Nychols should have been in bed by then, but he had to gain permission to fly with Taeto. He stood in a shadowy recess behind a great Hawthipian-sized chair, waiting. He paid scant attention to the heated exchange.
The ambassador was saying, “We cannot surrender Tarileel to the phantoms.”
“The contract between the phantoms and the Obbas cannot be contested,” argued the other. “To do so would call into question every contract with the phantoms.”
“Excellent idea,” the ambassador snapped.
“You will not gain support for that position,” said the diplomat from Lorsh. “Phantom technology is valued on many worlds. There are no advanced civilizations on Tarileel. It is not worth this fight.”
“You are suggesting that we abandon this planet?”
“I fear that we must. Instead of pointless debate, we should make arrangements to remove those inhabitants that have requested our assistance.”
“There must be countless species on Tarileel that have yet to be identified,”
Ambassador Admorc protested, “How do we even know what we are leaving to the mercy of the phantoms? I can assure you that the phantoms have used their technology to make a far more accurate assessment of Tarileel, than has the Alliance.”
“No good, Admorc,” the diplomat said. “We have heard your arguments before. Not every battle can be won. We must let Tarileel go.”
The diplomat from Lorsh departed and the ambassador called to Nychols, “Why are you roaming about past your bedtime?”
The boy looked up into the big reddish-brown face, and the words tumbled over one another: “Taeto the pilot says the diplomats will be too busy to fly out in the windglide. He says he can take me, if you give permission. Please Ambassador Admorc. He says the jawbone is so huge, you can see it from the glide.”
“Look well,” the ambassador agreed, morosely. “You may be the last outsider to do so.”
Even as the sun peeped over the eastern forests, Nychols was climbing into the windglide and strapping into the passengers’ compartment. While he waited for Taeto, he fingered a pendant emblazoned with the ambassador’s insignia, which he had been ordered to wear. Of course it was a camera and tracking device. He would be monitored at all times. Nychols did not care. He closed his eyes and let his imagination ponder what sort of being would have a scull so big that it could be seen from a windglide. Was it as big as a T. rex?
Taeto arrived and squatted into place before the controls. “Ready, passenger?”
“Ready, captain,” Nychols answered with eager anticipation.
Soon they were flying over an endless expanse of unbroken forest, flying so low that they were almost riding upon a carpet of blue-green needles. Sweet aromas wafted up through the pristine growth. The breeze on his face was invigorating. They drifted lower over a broad river and then climbed above rolling foothills where short, fat quadrupeds fed on blue vegetation. The glide climbed steadily, as mountains rose up to the west.
Finally, Taeto brought the glide to rest near a marshy lake choked with a stinking grayish growth. Nychols saw, half submerged in the shallow water, the enormous jawbone.
Taeto had set down upon an outcropping of rock some twenty meters from the bones. The ground was too marshy to land closer.
Young Nychols was nearly bouncing with excitement. “I don’t care about the disgusting mush. I’m going to get closer.”
“Watch where you step,” Taeto croaked. “I need to check a sensor before we move on.”
Nychols swung up and out of the glide. While the ground was saturated, and it sucked at his shoes, there was no standing water at this point. The boy started forward.
The stench of rotting vegetation reached his nose with every shoe imprint into the squishy mud. Still he was making good progress. He plodded onward toward the big bones.
Many teeth were still intact. Something else half rose from the vegetation. A horn? He moved closer.
Then the ground dropped out from beneath him. He was standing in stinking water almost to his waist. He tried to pull forward, but his shoes were held firm in the disgusting mud. “Taeto!” he cried out. “My feet are stuck!”
The pilot glanced up from where he was making some adjustment to the glide’s wings. “Better take off your shoes.”
A wave of pure terror washed over the boy. While he might be able to lift his feet from the shoes, they were his only protection from phantoms. Under no circumstances was he permitted to remove them outdoors. “Help me!” he cried out.
He felt something bumping against his legs, and then his ankles were being bitten in ten places at once. “Help me!” he screamed.
A shadow momentarily blocked out the sun. Then with a whoosh of great wings, an enormous shape was plunging straight down at Taeto.
This thing was as big as some of the dinosaurs from ancient Earth. It was covered in scales that varied in color from grayish blue to purple. The vast wings were translucent. It had a long whipping tail and powerful jaws. In perfectly comprehensible On’an’am it said in a strong alto voice, “Be gone, phantoms.”
One wing dipped, and swiped at Taeto. The pilot disintegrated into a shower of tiny golden specks.
Nychols stared in shock. Taeto was not real: either that or the phantoms replaced him with their hex technology. So this was why he couldn’t let the boy touch him! While Nychols wore the shoes, one touch would disrupt the hex technology. It was all too terrible to understand.
Only when Nychols forced his attention away from the astounding sight did he again become conscious of the biting things on his legs. He shrieked.
The huge winged thing swung toward him, as it dropped to the ground. It stretched its body flat and reached out with the monstrous talons of its front feet.
Nychols could not run away. He could only stand frozen in mute terror.
The talons closed about his small body like a cage. He was plucked from the mud. Dangling there, he was brought close to one multi-lidded eye, filmy with age. A long, reptilian tongue flicked over his legs, removing the biters, which he now saw to be fat sluglike things. His huge winged captor spoke to him using an odd little speaking device implanted into the scales under the lower jaw. “Young ones must stay away from phantoms.”
“I didn’t know,” he stammered. Then, “Please don’t eat me, whoever you are.”
“Never eat talkers,” She stated. She said it as though she was repeating a rule or a lesson.
Nychols blurted out several questions at once. “Who are you? What are you called? Who gave you speech? How did you know about phantoms? Are the big bones from another one like you?”
“Protector of the nest is called Eeneldyn. Defender of the Nest became bones.”
“You have baby dragons in your nest?” Of all the beings real or imagined that Nychols knew about, Eeneldyn most closely resembled the mythical dragons of Earth. Of course she would not breathe fire. That would be a dangerous adaptation in the oxygen-rich environment of Tarileel.
“The protector’s nest should not be empty,” Eeneldyn said. “The young should not be taken.”
“The phantoms took the young?” Phantoms, or rather whatever intelligence existed behind the hex technology, were obsessed with observing how various species reacted to fright. To introduce their captive humans to dragons would be irresistible.
“Phantoms want to make bargains,” Eeneldyn said. “The Quon came long ago. The Quon give speech and take young.”
Nychols had never heard of Quon. Whoever they were, wherever they came from, they must be part of the Alliance. They spoke Om’an’am.
Eeneldyn still held him between her talons, still watched him through one dim eye. He no longer felt fear. Poor old half-blind dragon that she was, he was safe as long as he kept talking. He plucked a bit of gravel caught under one scale, and wondered how to ask the next question without being rude. “Eeneldyn? I think you have lived a very long time.”
“Protector of the nest must live until the young can fly.”
“Your eyes look… How do you see to fly?”
“The protector feels vibrations and direction.”
“You feel the phantoms through vibrations?”
“Phantoms make the protector’s scales itch.”
While Nychols removed some gravel from between blue scales, he told Eeneldyn all about Ambassador Admorc, about his career-long fight against the phantoms. “Right now, he is trying to stop them from taking control of Tarileel.”
“The phantoms rule Tarileel,” she said, and there was tragedy in her voice.
“Not completely,” Nychols argued. “They don’t control airspace. Ambassador Admorc hasn’t given up…” But what if the phantoms had succeeded in stealing him? His fingers closed about the pendant. Why hadn’t the ambassador sent help? Maybe he was too busy to monitor the flight. “Eeneldyn? Could you fly me back to the diplomatic compound? It is east of here—beyond the great forest. The diplomats should talk to you. Maybe you know things that could help them save Tarileel.”
Holding him with care between her talons, she sprang forward on her powerful hind legs. Another mighty leap and she was airborne.
Oh no! She was flying in the wrong direction. Her great wings, which were like a rush of wind, were carrying them westward. She was flying over the great mountain range. Nychols grasped the claws with both hands, and he shouted. “East is the other way! Turn around, Eeneldyn! Turn around.”
She ignored his cries. The wings swooshed with tremendous force, as they turned a little to the north and climbed ever higher to stay above the impossibly high peaks.
Within the protective clutch of talons, Nychols rode on his belly. The view was so amazing that he momentarily forgot that he was at the mercy of a half-blind dragon that did not know which way she was going. Beneath him were jagged mountaintops tipped with snow. Strange blue vegetation, holding its own against the battering wind, formed fantastic patterns like great twisted spirals. Streamlets trickled downward outlined only a degree darker than the vegetation. He saw massive rock formations in every shade of pink. These enchanting mountains appeared the rightful home for mythical beings.
Eeneldyn flew still higher, and then they were descending into a canyon. Pink cliffs rose on all sides. At the center of this place was a small pool bubbling hot sulfuric waters. At this elevation the air was cool on his face. The heat rising from the pool felt stifling.
Eeneldyn spiraled downward until she hovered directly over the pool. Her talons loosened and he fell with a splash.
Nychols was an excellent swimmer, but the sudden fall and the sulfuric heat, took his breath away. The water was so thick with tiny growing things that he felt weighted down. It was like being thrown into the middle of a thick, warm soup. Certainly not hot enough to scald, but sufficient to cause discomfort.
Nychols managed to break the surface. Treading water he cried out, “Help me! I can’t swim in this stuff!”
Eeneldyn was curled around the pool. She lay watching him through one filmy eye, wings folded back, tail draping over her neck. “The young must stay in the nest until they grow strong enough to fly,” she said.
The thick water weighed on him, and threatened to drag him under. He broke the surface again and cried out, “I can’t live in your nest!”
He struggled to the edge of the pool and started to climb out.
With a slight motion of one foot, she pushed him back in.
Nychols fought his way to the surface yet again, his eyes brimming with tears. “Why do you want to hurt me, Eeneldyn?”
“The young must grow strong.”
“I can’t live in this water. I don’t have scales. I don’t have wings.”
“The young must grow wings.”
“I am not like your young,” he sobbed. How could he get out of the water without Eeneldyn pushing him back in? Her great body completely encircled the pool. Feet, jaw, tail, wings—every part of her colossal body was capable of pushing and prodding. Truly, he did not think it strange to converse with a being so different from himself. Yet he was helpless against her great size and strength.
He must rely on his brains.
Nychols blinked back tears. He would be safest on Eeneldyn’s back. Fortunately, he often thought about how one might ride a dinosaur. This ought to be similar.
He treaded water until he was close to a folded front leg, which rested in the shallow water. She watched him through one multi-lidded eye. He made no move to climb, but lay his hands against a spur at the back of the leg. “Eeneldyn,” he said, “Do you think your young are still on Tarileel?”
“Protector of the nest searched everywhere,” she answered.
“The Quon took them?”
“Protector of the nest should not think so much about a new voice. She should not go to the Quon’s camp to talk. When she goes back to her young, the nest is empty.” Eeneldyn lowered her head in sorrow.
Nychols sprang upward. He grabbed wherever he could grasp until he was atop her back. He scooted forward and squatted between two spines, gripping the one before him with all his strength.
The boy glanced up. A virtual image of Ambassador Admorc floated beside Eeneldyn’s head. She could not see it or hear him, for she lacked the necessary neuroimplant. Not wishing to confuse Eeneldyn by speaking aloud, he mouthed the words, “Did you see everything?”
“Could I look away?” said the image.
“You are managing well enough,” the ambassador said.
“Send help,” he pleaded.
“No good. If she becomes frightened or confused, she could harm herself or somebody else. I judge you both safest, if you bring her back. We cannot leave her to the mercy of the phantoms.”
“But you will save Tarileel?”
“Tarileel is lost,” the Ambassador snapped. “The alliance lacks the will to fight. By tomorrow we will be on our way to Ga’it. For your safety and hers, you must persuade her to bring you back.”
“You know what matters most to her. She has told you clearly enough.” The ambassador’s image vanished.
How could he know the right words to say? He absolutely had to get this right. Resting his head against the hard spine, he finally said, “Eeneldyn, I want to stay with you, but my body is not made to live in water. Take me back to the diplomatic compound. Otherwise, the phantoms will use you to frighten smaller beings like me. Please take me back. We will ask Ambassador Admorc what is best to do.”
“The protector must not leave the nest again,” she said with great weariness.
“…Maybe the diplomats know where the Quon live. Maybe they can find your young. After we leave and the phantoms take over, you will never be allowed to do what you want. What if we find your young? How can we bring them to you, if the phantoms have you? Eeneldyn, you have to come back with me.”
Eeneldyn slowly rose to her feet and stretched forward. She hopped up to a ledge, and then to another. Then her wings spread wide and she soared up beyond the mountain peaks.
Inside the lowest level of Ambassador Admorc’s ship, Bao Bantalf, were rooms filled with sophisticated machinery. These were off-limits to Nychols. There were also two large cargo bays.
A boy wearing pajamas and clutching a pillow tiptoed along a narrow walkway. He touched a panel and a door slipped back.
Nychols stood in the larger cargo bay, which was often used to transport needed supplies to the various planets the ambassador must visit. The current cargo was among the strangest ever. Curled into one huge reptilian ball, Eeneldyn hibernated. Nychols shivered, for the space must be kept chilled to ensure that she did not wake up.
They would arrive at Ga’it in five days. The dragon’s arrival was greatly anticipated. Scientists were eager to talk with her. There was hope that she could check the population of Earth-pigs, accidentally introduced and now threatening to destroy the roots of the sacred groves. The ambassador promised help as well. Even before they departed Tarileel, enquiries were being sent out concerning her lost nestlings.
Nychols crept close to the inert shape and placed his pillow beside the head. He huddled close, even though no warmth was emitted. Soon enough he was also sleeping.
He did not stir when a large reddish-brown shape floated into the bay upon a riser, or when blue-gloved hands dropped a warm blanket over his sleeping form.