Birthday Blaze

A certain someone gets sucked into one of those dragon platformer games. No, not that one. Mature.

As the black of the screen stretches into a swirling void and you're pulled flailing through the frame of the TV, you can't help but wonder whether the note that said, "Here's that dragon game I thought you'd really get into," was supposed to be a pun.

At first it feels like being hurled forward, then like falling into the formless dark. With no more force than if you rolled off the edge of a couch, you land on a polished stone floor. A spotlight falls across you, lighting up an area a little wider than the span of your arms. You look up, but the light's not coming from anywhere. It's just there.

Ugh. Always this sort of thing on your birthday. You sit up, then get to your feet. Maybe the screen's still somewhere in the dark up above you. If you can get up to it, maybe you can climb back out.

But before you take two steps, a broad black pane blurts open in front of you, blocking your way. Letters appear inside of it, in time with a warbling sound that's not quite like a voice.

Uh, yeah, no thanks. You're not bothering with this; you need to find a way out. As you turn to the side, you're confronted by a text box with a blinking cursor. You turn around, but it whirls about to keep itself in front of you. You reach out to push it away, but it's solid, like a floating wall. When you touch it, the first blank spot switches to an A.

You sigh. Maybe it'll let you go if you play along. By tapping on the text box you start spelling out, letter-by-letter, B-L-A...but before you can follow that with C, the cursor leaps two spaces forward, spelling out 'BLAZE' instead.

You turn around and shout, "Hey!" like you expect to see some grinning face hanging over your shoulder. There's no one there, but there is a new message:

A cold sweat hits you when you go to protest. Wait, what is your name? It's—it's not Blaze, you know that. It starts with...the M in your head spins around and morphs into a B; the I stretches upward into an L. The deeper you dig to try to remember it, the more Blaze sinks down into your subconscious. You know it's wrong, but it leaps to mind so quickly you can't imagine what your name is supposed to be.

You shake your head, then yell up at the burbling non-voice of the tutorial messages, "That's not my name!"

A white-gloved hand appears in the air beside you with a snap of its fingers. It wiggles as if stretching, flips over, and then pinches menacingly at you. You raise your hands and start to back away, but then it strikes. In a blur of white, it swoops in, grabs your nose between its thumb and forefinger, and pulls. Your face stretches forward like silly putty. Air pops in your ears. You feel like you're about to sneeze. It's dragging your cheeks and mouth along for the ride. You swat at the glove until it lets go and recoils, then drop your face into your hands and try to shove it back in against your skull.

A chorus of snaps come from all direction. You look up to see five or six more gloves surrounding you. The first one shakes itself off, then clenches at you as if scowling.

Uh oh.

You go to run, but one of them hooks its finger around the corner of your lips and yanks you to one side. Distracted by trying to pull it off, another one gets you in the other side of your mouth. They pull in unison, stretching your cheeks wider and peeling back your lips. Fangs bulge out of your gums. Two more gloves dart in, taking hold of your upper and lower jaw, pulling while the other pair hold your head steady. The front of your face elongates, drawn out into the shape of a snout, while you make muffled protests and thrash your tongue against the hands holding your mouth open.

All at once, they let go. Your jaws slam down together hard enough to leave you stunned and rattled, grasping at either side of your snout. One of the gloves returns, jamming its fingers into your nostrils and spreading them. Cartilage pops, your nose stretches, and your nostrils migrate to either side of your snout. Another glove joins in, rubbing along the top of your muzzle, molding its tip into a rounded shape. Two more of them smooth over the contours of your cheeks. By the time they let go, your wide maw has been carefully modeled.

"Ssthop!" you gasp. Your tongue snakes out between your fangs and spills over your chin.

Just because the hands done with your face doesn't mean they're finished. One sweeps its palm across your scalp, making your hair vanish in one swoop and fashioning your skull into a more draconic shape. A pair of them squishes your ears down against your head. Another set pinch your bare forehead, dragging horns from your head by their fingertips one inch at a time. The last two of them knead your brow like clay.

Before long, you're sporting a pair of stubby horns poking from the top of your head. Between them, a short ridged crest runs back down to your neck. The gloves wrench your eyelids open until they snap shut again. Wincing and blinking away the tears, you find your eyes stretching larger and wider, matching the expressive caricature of your thick brow.

You cup your snout in your hands and tug on your short horns and pull at your cheeks. The front-heavy weight of your head makes you stagger back to try to keep your balance. You look up above you. One of the hands has a artist's palette, while three others are swirling big paintbrushes in the paint until they're dripping with impossibly slick gloss.

They descend on you. You swing your arms like you're swatting bugs, but the gloves dart and swoop around them. They slather your snout in powder-blue, paint your horns and crest bright pink, and cover your chin and dot your cheeks with creamy yellow. The oversaturated colors dry in seconds, forming into smooth scales wrapped around your face.

Getting called Blaze—which isn't your name, you insist to yourself—makes you warm and queasy. A bashful purple blush sneaks onto to your blue-scaled cheeks. You wrinkle your nose and snort a defiant puff of smoke. The tang of heat rolls around the back of your mouth.

You narrow your eyes at the text box. "I don't even have a B blaaAAAHH—" you start saying, but you're interrupted by the eruption of reddish-pink flame from your mouth. Your throat bulges outward as fire floods through it. You almost raise your hands to cover your mouth, but think better of it at the last moment. Afraid of burning yourself, you can only wait until it sputters to a stop with a smoldering cough.

How did you do that? You didn't mean to breathe fire, you weren't even trying to. The feeling of being watched creeps down your spine. What if someone out in the real world is controlling the game? Literally, pushing your buttons? You look up in the direction you imagine the camera would be and say, "Hey, cut it out! I've got stuff to do today, I can't goof around with this—"

The gloves crack their knuckles. They're not done with you yet.

One of them grabs your wrist and holds it still while another squishes your fingers one by one down against your palm. Your knuckles pop and your fingertips swell into thick claws. A third hand mimics a pair of scissors slicing through your shirt, then lays against your bare chest and starts to rub. A shudder runs through your body. Your back arches and your chest bulges outward between your shoulders, pressing back against the glove's touch. Two more wrap around either side of your neck and stroke, coaxing your head upward while soothing your craning vertebra.

From wrist to elbow and elbow to shoulder, they squash your arms down shorter. Ligaments pop and shift; your arms hang awkwardly in front of your chest once the gloves let go. They grab your left leg and you nearly fall over. One holds down the ball of your foot, the other tugs at your ankle. Your toes splay out against its palm. They curl and cling together, creaking and popping, dwindling down to three big claws while your heel stretches high into the air. With a few shoves, the hands scrunch down the rest of your leg, then let go. For a few seconds, you wobble and kick out with your feral leg before toppling over onto your chest.

Your new hind leg scrapes its claws along the floor. It hauls your backside into the air while you try to get up onto your other knee—but the gloves pull your human leg back out from under you and hold it up in the air while they squish and shape it. You scrabble at the floor with your forelimbs but they don't work the way you're used to. You can't drag yourself away.

While the other gloves bend your legs and sculpt your toes, a spare one grabs the base of your spine and yanks. Six inches of tail shoot out of your body. Sparks fly up from the corners of your eyes. You sink your claws into the floor and let out a startled blast of pink flame. The pop-pop-pop of new bones snapping into place feels like a firecracker set off inside of you. It tugs again. Your eyes roll back and you puff smoke. Your cheeks flush purple again; you feel every crack and shift of your hips being forced outward and the topography between your legs being remodeled by your thick tail. One last pull makes it twang like a guitar string and sends a ridge of spikes jutting out all the way up to the crest on top of your head.

Embarrassed by how uncomfortably good that felt, you squirm against the gloves that grip your shoulders. It's the least you can do to put up a fight, to show that you're not giving in. Even if it's mostly for the sake of your own pride. You grit your fangs and shut your eyes as they tug a pair of short wings free from your back. They flump out, stretch up into the air, and then give a few experimental flaps.

By the time you crack your eyes open again, you see the paint cans the gloves are lugging over. With broad brushes and quick strokes, they paint you in from head to tail in blue and pink and soft yellow. You imagine the scales will feel skin-tight, but they're even more snug and form-fitting than that. They hug every inch of you closer than any bodysuit could. They're not on top of your skin, they're a part of your skin.

You push yourself off the ground. Your head sags forward, unused to how long your neck is. All the weight in your body feels too far forward. You can't even pick both your front legs up without falling right on your snout. Even with all four feet on the ground, you start tipping over and stumble to one side. You're trying to stand like a human, with your feet together; you quickly figure out you've got to spread them wider if you want to stand up straight.

Even just standing up straight feels different: head raised, chest out, neck arched. You keep wanting to relax and slouch forward, but it's not as comfortable any more.

The sound of your name sends a warm shudder down your scales. But hold on, that's not your name, even if the game's acting like it is. It fits a dragon like you, sure. And hearing it makes you want to perk up and puff out your chest. But you're still pretty sure it's not your name. And you didn't hear your—that—name, either. You read it out of the text box.

"Okay," you say out loud. "I'm a cartoon dragon. Cool job on the birthday present, but you can pull me out now."

Silence. You twist your head around, which works a few lingering pops out of your neck. The spotlight isn't the only light in the room any more; torches flickering along the wall light up the flagstone floors and tall columns of a fantasy castle hall. Okay, you think. The way back out of here must be somewhere up above you, maybe a window or a tower. If you can figure out how to get around, maybe you'll be able to fly up and climb back into your living room.

That's a big if. You pick up a front paw and look at its underside. What are you expecting to find, instructions? With a snort, you put it back down, pull yourself up to your full draconic height, lift both left legs at once, and nearly fall flat on your side.

No good. Left front, right back, right front, left back. You think about the order carefully, then start moving one foot at a time, picking your way cautiously across the stone floor.

Then a force knocks you square in the hindquarters and you go bounding across the floor. Not walking or running, but almost leaping, like a sprinting leopard, your back rippling up and down with every stride. You turn without warning and your body leans into it. You push off with one front and one back leg and whip around, darting off in a new direction. You zig-zag back and forth, rounding the bases of the columns, turning faster and faster until you're practically twirling in place.

At last, you skid to a stop, panting for breath, eyes spinning. You shake some sense back into your head. You don't know how you did any of that, it happened without even thinking. You try taking a few steps forward and you slip right back into that bounding gait. You have to pause and think for a moment to even remember how you messed up the first time you tried to walk. It's all so natural that it takes conscious effort to try to walk like a human would.

That's a bit worrying, but now that you can move around, you can find your way out. You start heading toward the hallway, when the message box pops up in front of you and blocks your way.

Several feet in front of you, the floor drops away like a trapdoor, leaving a gap maybe twelve feet across, stretching from one wall to the other. On the other side, a green gem appears, shaped like a teardrop with a stem sticking out of the top. The pearidot floats in the air, spinning slowly and glistening as its facets hit the light.

You stomp the floor with your forepaws. "I need to get out," you tell the text box. "Forget gliding, how do I fly?"

The tutorial doesn't reply, but instead, one of the white gloves drifts back down into view and floats toward your face. You rear up and and start backing away. You don't know what it wants, but you don't want it messing with you again. You take a stab at the dark: "Um, pause. Start button. Quit. Main menu?"

The glove looms in until it's an inch away from your snout, presses its fingers together, and snaps.

Your eyes go wide and your pupils shrink. The glove vanishes, leaving you staring at the floating gemfruit across the chasm. Your jaw hangs half-open as your mouth starts to water. It looks impossibly delicious, with the light dancing across its polished, glinting edges. You lick your lips and swallow. All you have to do is jump and glide over there, and then it's yours for the taking. Jump and glide. Easy enough for a dragon.

You lower your head and lean back, front legs stretched out in front of you, eyes laser-focused on the pearidot. Your stomach growls. Springing forward, you sprint toward the ledge, shoulders low and wings down, then leap into the air and unfurl your wings. As you stretch out your claws to land on the other side, you open your mouth, then hit the ground and snap up the gemfruit in one smooth motion.

Cool sweet juices run between your fangs. You lap them up as you tip your head back to swallow, then slump forward, eyes crossed and tongue dangling from your jaws. The taste leaves you tingling from your claws to your horns. It's more satisfying than anything else you've ever eaten, like someone just punched a button in your brain and dispensed one solid unit of delight. You arch your back, stretch your arms out in front of you, and let out a big, grinning sigh.

That grin slowly fades along with the afterglow and you start to realize how...weird you're acting. You're getting all worked up over these stupid collectables and you're not even a dragon. Okay, well, you are, but you're not supposed to be. Just like you're not supposed to be hungry for gemfruits. Then again, you are a dragon, and all dragons love...ugh, no!

"You can't just—"

You paw at your throat. You can feel your voice vibrating against your claws, but when it comes out of your mouth, it's transmuted into text.

Another pit in the floor pops open in front of you, even wider across than the last one. You tell yourself that you have to focus on getting out of here, that you're not going to play along unless you can help it.

A line of glittering red gemfruits appear, tracing an arc in the air over the gap. Your eyes widen and your breath quickens, but you force yourself to look away. Your claws knead anxiously at the ground. Don't think about how juicy and sweet a whole mouthful of berries would be. You gulp to keep yourself from drooling. Don't think about how bright and sparkly they are. You hunch down low, tail swishing through the air, practicing flapping your wings open. You're not hungry for more gemfruits. You're not, you're not, you're not.

But you are bounding toward the gap and leaping into the air at the last moment and unfurling your wings just before you feel yourself start to fall again. With a few skillful swings of your hips, you guide yourself down, slurping up every last ruberry until you touch down on the other side.

There's no time to waste; you start chomping down on the mouthful of berries as soon as your feet are on the floor. You start to wriggle and stretch your body, savoring its lithe flexibility as you flop down and roll onto your side. Your eyes glaze over. Your limbs dangle loosely above you as you squirm and growl and flex your claws like a contented cat. Once you've finally gulped down the last of the sweet, tangy berries, you lay your head back against the ground and lap at your lips.

One of your paws reaches down between your knees and starts rubbing up and down your stomach. Its claws pluck at the joints between your belly scales. You let out a wispy sigh of delight.

As you recover from the bliss, you twist around and pounce back up onto all fours. After all that, there's only one question you can focus on right now:

From somewhere up above, wooden crates come tumbling down, forming a wall between you and the way out of the room. There's got to be twenty of them in all, which means there's so many gemfruits you're already salivating.

You rear back, suck in a deep breath, and blow it back out as a billowing spray of pink flame. It cuts a swath through the crates in front of you; more tumble down into the gap left behind and burst open too. By the time you run out of breath, there's a veritable pile of sapphles and citrusines to swoop in and snap up.

Each juicy gem splashes you with a burst of energy and a hunger for even more. You pick them up between your teeth, toss them into the air, and then catch them on your tongue before they hit the ground. Still hungry for more, you bend down and plow through the remaining boxes, knocking them apart with your short horns and snatching up the rest of the gemfruits that fall out.

You skid to a stop across the stone floor, wide-eyed, grinning, and buzzing with energy. It's hard to sit down and think about things when you mostly want to run and jump and smash stuff and find more gemfruits. Which means you're not really questioning whether or not you're supposed to be a dragon by now, but c'mon. You've got a nearly instinctive hunger for gemfruits, you move like you've been on all fours your entire life, and your name is Blaze. What would make you think you're not a dragon?

Ahead of you, the stone floor twists around in a spiral, looping upside down over a long pit before it straightens out at the other end of the hall. A red button as big as your body pops out of the ground, right in front of you. It looks intimidating, but you're too eager to hesitate now. You jump up on top of the button and it clunks down underneath you.

Crackling heat seeps into your feet. Your claws creak and pop as they curl out larger and bulkier. The fiery feeling rushes up your legs with a sudden surge of muscle twisting and bulging beneath your scales. Your eyes snap open and you let out a snarl that makes the depths of your throat glow yellow-red. Your fangs start jutting up past your lips. Your horns crack and grow to double their height. Your chest bulks outward, pulling the scales so tight across your front that your white-hot fire glows right through them.

The searing heat fills your mind until you can only see red. You want to smash and burn and crush and hump. Do you even have genitals right now? It doesn't matter, it can't stop you from wanting to pin another dragon underneath you and slam your hips against theirs.

With your front legs spread in front of you lean back, hunching your shoulders, bending your hind legs until your thighs and calves are pressed tight against one another. Then you burst forward, let out a firey roar, and kick up embers in your wake. Your legs pump like pistons beneath you and the floor shakes with your thundering strength. You plow straight through groups of gemfruit; their juices splash against your thick chest and sizzle as your scales soak them up.

As you reach the other side, you gallop to a stop. The trails of flame you've left linger for a few moments before flickering out. Cinders flutter out between your fangs while your chest rises and falls with each deep breath. With one paw, you reach down between your legs and start to grind your claws against the scales. Drops of drool like glowing magma drip off your dangling tongue as your eyes roll back.

But by then, the blazing flame inside you is already blinking, and after a few seconds, it blinks out entirely. With a hiss like a hot iron plunged into water, your scales sink back down to their normal size. You let out a deep sigh of smoke, then shake your head to clear your thoughts.

You can hardly imagine anything worse than the dragons losing their gemfruit seeds—though a Hyeenorc invasion is probably the next-worst thing.

A portal opens up in front of you, swirling to life with rippling blue magic. Without a second though, you leap into it, whisking yourself off to Arallon Castle.

Meanwhile, Kotep's stretched out on your couch like they own the place, with your controller sitting in the jackal's hands. With a smirk and a wink at a non-existent camera, they say, "Happy birthday, Blaze."

19 September, 2019