Uylouth was anxious. The six century old silver Uthiran had sat in her cavern on her nest made of rocks for the past year. Finally, her thirty-three eggs were about to hatch. Her mate, a red Uthiran named Tokiron, lazed outside their cavern high in one of Uthira’s numerous mountain ranges. Breed always went through the father, and Uylouth was never picky about mating within her breed. Tokiron was strong and hearty, though lazy, which balanced Uylouth’s busy-body personality.
Uylouth jumped off the nest as she felt one of the eggs began to shake.
“Get in here before I go out there and decapitate you,” Uylouth roared, shaking the cavern and the rock ledge Tokiron was lying on. Nothing less would get him inside.
Tokiron galloped inside and stood next to Uylouth. They both watched intently as thirty-three foot-long scaleless red Uthirans hatched, filling the cavern with chirps and cries.
“Can I chow down yet?” Tokiron wagged his tail. “I didn’t eat for the last two days in anticipation, so I’m starving.”
Uylouth scanned the writhing mass of hatchlings, already fighting among themselves who would be at the top of the heap. “Yes you can.”
She pointed with a claw to one hatchling with a deformed wing, another that was barely moving and finally to one with a nasty skin rash.
Tokiron carefully picked up the skin-rash hatchling from the pile with his teeth. Then sucked the baby in and started chewing.
Uylouth turned and walked out onto the outcropping. She would let Tokiron do his job while she hunted for her brood’s first meal.
While the rest of Terrall gasped in horror at the thought of fathers being allowed to cannibalize their children, it served a critical function. It got rid of the weak, as those were the only ones a father was allowed to eat. Otherwise they’d simply end up dead themselves.
That’s exactly what happened with a pair of silvers who lived further up the mountain. The father, Mordridakon, got greedy and ate the strongest hatchlings while the mother was hunting. Mordridakon’s head ended up landing on the very ledge Uylouth was standing on. His former mate took in another silver, got rid of her old brood, and was now sitting on a new clutch of eggs.
On one side of the cliff was a waterfall dropping a hundred feet, where the water flowed a short distance before falling again. Uylouth took a drink of water and then walked to the edge to survey the slopes. Up and down the mountains, other dragons were exiting their caverns to hunt for their own meals.
A silver female named Yukoni, who had very young hatchlings of her own, swooped down and hovered just off the cliff. The hatchlings’ sounds wafted out from the cavern.
“Congratulations on the hatchings,” Yukoni said. “Maybe your hatchlings and mine could play together when they’re old enough.”
“That would be good,” Uylouth replied. “As long as yours don’t try to kill mine.”
“Likewise. See you later. My brood is hungry.” Yukoni flew away.
Uthirans lived in loosely-affiliated groups called clans. The clans served one purpose: on a continent dominated by carnivorous dragons, there needed to be a system to ensure that they didn’t eat all the prey and starve to death. The clans ensured prey remained by limiting the number of Uthirans who could live and hunt in a particular area.
Membership to a clan was not determined by lineage or breed, but simply by the number of dwellings and the prey levels of a particular area. Desert clans had the fewest residents and plains clans had the most, with mountain clans falling somewhere in between. Members of mountain clans, like Tokiron and Uylouth’s Aspiusa clan, lived in the numerous mountainous caverns dotting the Aspiusa Range and mostly hunted mountain goats, sheep and mammoths. They always left enough to ensure the remainder would continue to breed sustainably.
Joining the Aspiusa clan was simply a matter of finding a vacant cavern either by mating with or killing the current resident. Offspring reaching maturity at one hundred were generally kicked from the clan unless they could find their own dwellings in the clan area.
The clan system was why Uthirans were so cruel toward their own kind. There were always more Uthirans than dwellings and available prey. The young were weeded out to a few, strong members. Mates could usually only stand each other as long as there were offspring around; afterwards, they usually split up before one ended up dead. Elders gone catatonic were left to starve to free up a dwelling unless they were one of the lucky few and had an offspring care for them. The only ones that weren’t brutal to each other were mature siblings who often banded together to survive for a few centuries.
The brutality had lessened in recent millennia as the residents of Hominia and Elemchi became more tolerant of their presence. Many Uthirans emigrated, returning only to mate and raise offspring. Uylouth and Tokiron were two such emigrants who met in New Delta and decided to mate with each other. They flew back to Uthira, moved to the Aspiusa Range and lucked out on finding a cavern – the previous owner had very recently gone catatonic.
Uylouth spotted a large herd of goats far below. She jumped off the cliff and went rigid, with her head, tail, claws and wings in perfect alignment. She shot down the slope in a flash. When she reached the herd, she glided over, causing a powerful sonic boom with stunned several goats. Uylouth arced around, grabbed one in her teeth and another in her claws and flashed back up to the cave.
Tokiron was finishing up eating a hatchling in front of a significantly smaller heap.
“How many did you eat?” the silver asked.
“Seven in total.”
Uyloth put her kills down and growled. “You’ve been greedy. I was only gone a short time.”
“Hold on, four were already dead, squished at the bottom of the heap.”
She was going to trust him, this time. “Help me feed the remainder.”
It was clear even then who the strongest were as two hatchlings were firmly implanted at the top. The first was an energetic male who whipped his tail down on his downtrodden siblings, and loudly barked for food. Next to him was a sister, who simply purred as she pushed her paws downward on her yelping siblings. Male and female dragons were identical until puberty, when females became stronger and more powerful. But their parents could always tell by smell.
Their parents picked them off first and placed them in the front. Then they untangled the heap, finding two more squished. Tokiron had a feast as he also devoured the bottom-most living seven.
“Wash your mouth before you feed, I’m not making our offspring cannibals.”
“Be right back.”
They were now down to seventeen hatchlings, sixteen having died in the first few hours of life. There was a practical reason for the quick culling of the weaker hatchlings. While it would take a long time to reach maturity, the hatchings would begin to grow the moment they were fed. The nest was only ten feet in diameter and so space had to be made.
Toikiron returned with a freshly washed mouth. The feeding could begin.
The hatchling’s teeth were dull stubs, so they couldn’t eat directly. Uylouth and Tokiron tore off meat from the kills, chewed it up and regurgitated it into their offspring’s waiting mouths. The two front hatchlings were fed first and the feeding progressed toward the back from there. Once fed, the hatchlings slept. Uylouth ate from the remaining meat and then slept on top of the nest.
The next day was the first of three tests to sift through the remaining hatchlings. Uylouth and Tokiron placed the hatchlings out on the cliff when the sun was at its peak. Then they waited. As they had no scales, the hatchlings were vulnerable to dehydration. The strong ones would either seek shade back in the cave or drink from the small puddles of water next to the waterfall.
After an hour, the two strongest drank from the water and then started wrestling each other, but Uylouth removed them before they’d topple over the edge. Another ten crawled back inside. Five never moved from where they had been placed.
A month later, once the twelve remaining hatchling had doubled in size and grew a thin covering of scales; it was time for the second test: the flight test. Uylouth and Tokiron simply flung the hatchlings off the cliff and see which ones would fly. This was easier than the version performed in the plains, which involved flying to high altitudes and dropping them from there.
The two strongest, as expected, hardly dropped ten feet before flying back up to their parents. A female made it half-way to the ground before flying back up. Two males and another female almost hit before they flew away and Tokiron had to collect them as they didn’t have the power to make it back up.
Two months later, the six remaining hatchlings were three and a half feet long and no longer needed to have their meat regurgitated to them. This marked the end of their growth spurt and they would grow much more slowly from this point onward.
It was now time for the third test, which varied depending on the breed, but focused around seeing if the hatchlings could manifest the breed’s powers. For silvers, it meant holding onto their parents’ backs as they zoomed past the sound barrier. The weak lost their grip and rocketed into the ground. Red Uthirans, who could breathe fire and at maturity had scales as hard as diamonds, had to be able to withstand high temperatures.
The six hatchlings were stood in a line at the edge of the cliff. Tokiron stood back, huffed and blew an inferno of bright yellow flame. Two of the little dragons were instantly charred, while two more fell off the cliff on fire, splattering on the ground far below, leaving just the two strongest behind.
They were heaving, smoking, but otherwise alright. The parents picked one up each and dipped them under the waterfall to cool them down. The adults then placed both of them back in the center of the cliff, and sat back on their haunches. The juvenile dragons glanced up at their parents quizzically. They still couldn’t speak yet; that wouldn’t come for another few years.
“We could have just the killed the rest months ago,” Tokiron said to Uylouth quietly. “It was quite obvious these two were going to make it.”
“But in event they failed a test, all our offspring would be dead.” She sighed. “And there still is that possibility in the century to come. Now we should give them their names.”
Tokiron nodded. “I have the one I’m giving the male picked out. But I’ll allow you to go first.”
Uylouth walked forward and towered over her daughter, who sat on all fours. “You shall be called Selkath, after my mother.” Uylouth licked the top of Selkath’s head. The small dragon purred and nuzzled her mother’s snout.
Uylouth stepped back and Tokiron loomed over his son, who was sitting back wagging his tail with his mouth hanging open. “I’ll call you Mordridakon, after…” he could hear faint growling from behind him, he had to be careful. “–After a strong and hearty acquaintance of mine.” The growling stopped. He licked Mordridakon, who eagerly licked him back and barked.
Thirty-three had been weeded down to two. Now Tokiron and Uylouth could focus on Mordridakon and Selkath to mold them into dragons that would stand the tests of time…