Echidnae looked down at her clutch with pride blossoming in her chest. Her five children had all managed to hatch from their eggs without any apparent difficulty and were busy feasting upon the corpse of a great mountain lion she had caught for them. Their small, underdeveloped, gore steaked snouts jostled one another for the best positions, taking it in turns to bury their muzzles in the long wound that she had made for them across the length of the creature’s large flank. Their tiny teeth were otherwise unable to pierce through the tough hide of the high-level predator. She watched over them approvingly as they ate their fill, their newborn stomachs gently swelling with the meat they needed to eat to grow strong.
She took a deep breath, savouring the comforting scents of her newly hatched children that intermingled with the rich mana-infused air that circulated throughout the caverns in which she had made her home. This was the first and last brood she would ever have, a grim realisation which caused her to let out a low whine of grief at the loss of all that could have been. She had been surprised by how much she enjoyed being a mother, these few short weeks with her brood were something that she would remember fondly for the rest of her life, no matter how brief that may be.
Her union with their father had been a short—although not an entirely unpleasant—affair, and it had rewarded her with five delightful children whose delicate newborn scales gleamed softly in the dim, golden magelight of her lair. They were beautiful creatures one and all, their little bodies pulling at her heartstrings as they moved about her cave with the staggering lack of coordination that could only be found in the recently hatched. It was not in her species’ nature to coddle their young. After this one last meal, she would be leaving them to fend for themselves much in the same way that her mother had left her and her mother before that. As cruel as it sounded, it wasn’t all bad; the ancestral memories all true dragons possessed were passed from mother to child, and she knew from her own experience that the knowledge contained within them would be more than enough to teach them everything they needed to know in order to survive until adulthood.
Well, almost all of them. Echidnae turned her long serpentine neck to face her smallest child, the very literal runt of her litter. So small was he in comparison to his siblings that even the Great System had designated him as the [Runt], stamping the slur on his very status, forever stunting his growth with every five level interval in his species class. System-defined traits were not uncommon amongst her kind. Their potent magical blood practically conjured new divergent bloodlines and beneficial traits out of the ether with almost frightening regularity, but this trait she knew was nothing but a protracted death sentence for her young son.
Size was everything to dragonkind and to her species, who rose above all other dragons, it was even more essential to show no signs of weakness. To be so cursed as to be physically smaller than not just his peers but also the lesser dragon species was a handicap he would never be able to overcome. His siblings would certainly see to that if no one else did; for while her youth was many centuries behind her, she still recalled with vivid clarity how cruel children could be. She would grieve for him later, but not today, for this was to be the last day that they would ever see one another, and she wanted him to remember her fondly for however fleeting his life would be.
She nuzzled her smallest son with her nose, ignoring how her other children paused in their feeding to look at her small display of maternal affection with a mixture of wonder and jealousy.
“Child, I name you Typhoeus. It is a strong name, for you will have to be stronger than most if you are to survive. Do you understand why” she asked, careful not to injure her son as she gently pressed her much larger head against his.
“Is it because I am small, Mother?” the newly named Typhoeus asked, his voice surprisingly eloquent for one so young.
“No, not because you are small, child, but because being small makes you different, and people are so rarely kind to those they deem to be other,” she explained.
“I don’t understand,” he said, furrowing the small scales of his brow as he looked up at her in confusion.
“I know Typhoeus, but you will,” she said, turning her head away from her child as her heart broke so that he wouldn’t see her tears. A large, selfish part of her wanted to stay, to protect Typhoeus from the persecution that she was sure was to follow, but she couldn’t.
It was long past time for her to go. With the next generation secured, she could no longer justify putting off the Call, its insistent pull intensifying with every passing day that it remained unanswered. Echidnae had always thought she would have more time—at least another thousand years or so—before it was her turn to delve deep and take her place in the Everwar, but things were changing, and in her experience they rarely changed for the better. She couldn’t stop thinking about all that she had yet to do, but now never would. If the rumours from the front weren’t quite so dire, she would have considered refusing the Call entirely, but after looking at the innocent faces of her five children, she couldn’t imagine doing something so selfish as forsaking her duty.
The elder council were making moves for the first time in millennia, which was something that should strike fear into the hearts of all creatures great and small. Whether she liked it or not, change was finally coming to Astresia, as reports of Monsters acting strangely kept filtering through from the front while every sane Dungeon Core unanimously reported that the great wards were already failing, a full millennium ahead of when they were supposed to. Echidnae shivered as she left her lair, knowing with certainty that she would never again return before she took to the skies and finally answered the Call. She would do this for her children, in the hope that their future wouldn’t be cut short like hers. She only wished she had more time so she could have seen her son Typhoeus grow to adulthood. For she knew that of all her children, the life of her runt would burn out the fastest. She just prayed he would have the chance to shine brightly before he was gone.