If at First You Don't Succeed, Try, Try Again, стр. 1

If at First You Don't Succeed,

Try, Try Again

By Zen Cho

Edited by Joel Cunningham

Cover art & design by Shirley Jackson

Originally published on the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog

©2018 Zen Cho

Cover art ©2018 Shirley Jackson

The first thousand years

It was time. Byam was as ready as it would ever be.

As a matter of fact, it had been ready to ascend some 300 years ago. But the laws of heaven cannot be defied. If you drop a stone, it will fall to the ground—it will not fly up to the sky. If you try to become a dragon before your thousandth birthday, you will fall flat on your face, and all the other spirits of the five elements will laugh at you.

These are the laws of heaven.

But Byam had been patient. Now it would be rewarded.

It slithered out of the lake it had occupied for the past 100 years. The western shore had recently been settled by humans, and the banks had become cluttered with humans' usual mess – houses, cultivated fields, bits of pottery that poked Byam in the side.

But the eastern side was still reserved to beasts and spirits. There was plenty of space for an imugi to take off.

The mountains around the lake said hello to Byam. (It was always safer to be polite to an imugi, since you never knew when it might turn into a dragon.) The sky above them was a pure light blue, dotted with clouds like white jade.

Byam's heart rose. It launched itself into the air, the sun warm on its back.

I deserve this. All those years studying in dank caves, chanting sutras, striving to understand the Way...

For the first half-millennium or so, Byam could be confident of finding the solitude necessary for study. But more recently, there seemed to be more and more humans everywhere.

Humans weren't all bad. You couldn't meditate your way through every doctrinal puzzle, and that was where monks proved useful. Of course, even the most enlightened monk was wont to be alarmed by the sudden appearance of a giant snake wanting to know what they thought of the Sage's comments on water. Still, you could usually extract some guidance from them, once they stopped screaming.

But spending too much time near humans was risky. If one saw you during your ascension, that could ruin everything. Byam would have moved when the humans settled by the lake, if not for the ample supply of cows and pigs and goats in the area. (Byam had grown tired of seafood.)

It wasn't always good to have such abundance close to hand, though. Byam had been studying extra hard for the past decade in preparation for its ascension. Just last month, it had been startled from a marathon meditation session by an enormous growl.

Byam had looked around wildly. For a moment it thought it had been set upon, maybe by a wicked imugi—the kind so embittered by failure it pretended not to care about the Way, or the cintamani, or even becoming a dragon. But there was no one around, only a few fish beating a hasty retreat.

Then, another growl. It was coming from Byam's own stomach. Byam recollected that it hadn't eaten in about five years.

Some imugi fasted to increase their spiritual powers. But when Byam tried to get back to meditating, it didn't work. Its stomach kept making weird gurgling noises. All the fish had been scared off, so Byam popped out of the water, looking for a snack.

A herd of cows was grazing by the bank, as though they were waiting for Byam.

It only intended to eat one cow. It wanted to keep sharp for its ascension. Dragons probably didn't eat much. All the dragons Byam had ever seen were svelte, with perfect scales, shining talons, silky beards.

Unfortunately Byam wasn't a dragon yet. It was hungry, and the cows smelled so good. Byam had one, and then another, and then a third, telling itself each time that this cow would be the last. Before it knew it, almost the whole herd was gone.

Byam cringed remembering this, but then put the memory away. Today was the day that would change everything. After today, Byam would be transformed. It would have a wish-fulfilling gem of its own—the glorious cintamani, which manifested all desires, cured afflictions, purified souls and water alike.

So high up, the air was thin, and Byam had to work harder to keep afloat. The clouds brushed its face damply. And—Byam's heart beat faster—wasn't that winking light ahead the glitter of a jewel?

Byam turned for its last look at the earth as an imugi. The lake shone in the sun. It had been cold, and miserable, and lonely, full of venomous water snakes that bit Byam's tail. Byam had been dying to get away from it.

But now, it felt a swell of affection. When it returned as a dragon, it would bless the lake. Fish would overflow its banks. The cows and pigs and goats would multiply beyond counting. The crops would spring out of the earth in their multitudes…

A thin screechy noise was coming from the lake. When Byam squinted, it saw a group of little creatures on the western bank. Humans.

One of them was shaking a fist at the sky. "Fuck you, imugi!"

"Oh shit," said Byam.

"Yeah, I see you! You think you got away with it? Well, you thought wrong!"

Byam lunged upwards, but it was too late. Gravity set its teeth in its tail and tugged.

It wasn't just one human shouting, it was all of them. A chorus of insults rose on the wind:

"Worm! Legless centipede! Son of a bitch! You look like fermented soybeans and you smell even worse!"

Byam strained every muscle, fighting the pull of the earth. If only it had hawk's claws to grasp the clouds with, or stag's antlers to pierce the sky…

But Byam wasn't a dragon yet.

The last thing