Scale, Tooth and Claw
They stumbled along on two legs two few, these stunted creatures that had dared end His aeons-long slumber. Their high pitched cries echoes around the gantries high above and swooped to assail its ears, ears unused to sound after so long in silence. The interlopers scurried into the shadows once again, and well they might.
For long ages of the world, he had waited in this deep place, guarded by a darkness that was more than the absence of light. No one had dared approach from the worlds of men, and those worlds had faded from memory; nothing more to Him than dreams of empires He had laid low, cities in flames and those endless droves of two-legged cattle that could sate even His mighty hunger.
And now, that age was over; silence was now noise, stillness was motion, and so many things He had forgotten were remembered. Surprise soon fell away to a long-dormant thrill of the hunt; the subtle tang of fear in the air was a sensation so long gone, but so sublime. He snarled a gloating warning; He would take his time with these ones, as was His will.
First, He recalled, came the wait. The wait that would pass in the blink of a heavy-lidded eye, for these creatures had not the patience of His kind. An age for them was one beat of His iron heart. Soon enough, they would show themselves, betray themselves to his majesty, offer their frail forms for the taking. It would be a spasm of movement or the slightest sound that gave him away. And there it was, as close as it always was to one of His immense stature.
A noise he recalled from so long ago, the high-pitched and quivering sound of fear made manifest. It was so very familiar, that sound, and it awoke something deep inside him. The furnace of his breath that had been cold for centuries suddenly burst again into flame, burning up from within and waited to be unleashed. But not yet. First, he would chase them.
As one, the huddled group stepped into the lighter darkness, believing themselves hidden, no doubt. The shadows no impediment to His sight, and he saw their spindly forms slinking away, fumbling across mounds of hoarded gold. One, He noted, dared even pocket a single coin. The theft was unforgivable
The distance between them was swallowed up in a single stride, buoyed by a beat of gigantic wings, and for a moment, he was before them, the fire of his eyes bathing them in a ruddy glow, and then came the chase. They would run, and he would let them, for the valiant deserved a glimmer of hope, and they were bold indeed to end his sleep. So He would test them, and watch them fail. And then He would kill them.
The group scattered and reformed between mountains of treasure, a fluid, moving flock that would offer a worthy pursuit. He toyed with them, as was his habit, allowing them brief moments of peace and refuge, moments of before plunging down from on high or bursting from beneath the piled gold, scattering it and them to the shadows. It was entertaining, this game they played, and he would let it go on for as long as he chose. What was left of their life was his to control; what was made of it was their own to decide.
Move for move He matched them, a hundred of their tiny steps made redundant by one of his, and the rush of air as the backdraft of His great wings sucked the very air from the chamber would throw them from their feet. Shakily they would rise, marvelling at their continued existence, and keep running, still refusing to accept the inevitable: that they were nothing more than prey.
He was fully alive now, muscles and flesh and sinew that had not moved in millennia now flexed in elated anticipation; they would make no more than a morsel, but revenge and this re-found exhilaration would sate Him for now. And then out, out into the world where new empires would have risen from the ashes of the old, ripened by time and now fresh and tender; a feast waiting for Him that none could deny.
A pair of intruders halted while the others fled, and turned to face Him, and raised sticks that breathed fire. So, it was a warrior’s death they sought. Then he would grant it. A swipe of a claw sent them left, a slicing wing right, and then a darting mouth agape forced them stumbling back, sprawling at His feet. At His mercy. They raised the fire-sticks again, and something new happened.
The sensation was strange to Him. Sharp, small objects slid from his scales, a minor annoyance but one he relished. An acrid taste that was not quite smoke pricked at His nostrils. There was even the kind of pain he had not felt in centuries, a dull ache behind each impact. But it was no matter; what weapons they had conjured in the long centuries of His negligence would be no match for iron scales and ivory claws and the flames that came from so deep within.
Flames that now burst forth from that place, and filled this marble cavern he had made his own, a temple to his might, turning gold undisturbed for centuries to molten flows and charring white stone black. How could any hope to resist? But still they did, darting this way and that, scattering where the flames took root and cowering where they thought he could not reach.
One of the fire-stick-bearing trespassers fell to the cascade of fire, burnt to cinders in a flash and snapped up in a burning maw. A mouthful, but the first of many. Two more were pinioned by razor claws, their bodies rent and torn and consumed moments later. The chase was over, the feast was begun. Only one more remained.
And where could it be, this most elusive of creatures? It mattered now; let it cling to its last few moments, cowering in the dark and savour them. He would savour its terror. The strong kill the weak, and He was the strongest. This last creature, this petty blight on his magnificence, would soon be as cold and dead as the corners he trembled in.
Again, that dull ache came, and with it, a sound like the crackling of timber in a forest fire or the crack of a claw on stone. A second sound, and this time he caught sight of a flash, like lighting but brighter. This new weapon was strange, fascinating. Valuable, and he would have it. A scaled head turned to face the light where, again, the lone figure was illuminated.
He would be shown some respect in death, for it was no small thing to face a Dragon and stand his ground. His death would be fast, but honourable. One limb at a time, He turned to face this bold prey, and inclined His head, His serpentine neck reaching out in a salute that was not mocking or cruel. A warrior this man had lived, and a warrior he would die. He prepared Himself for the final blow, a single bite that would end-
The pain was unbearable, an angry biting burning stinging stabbing flailing fiery pain. A pain he had never felt before, and something hot and red fell onto the gold below. Every piece of His being screamed in abject agony and in that moment the world was darker; the vision of the warrior vanished and was replaced by blackness. How? Why?
By the time the pain subsided and His eye stopped burning, the scent of flesh had long gone; only the acrid smoke and metallic tang of spilt blood remained heavy in the air. Slowly, sluggishly, He became aware it was his blood that had fallen in drop and spread in thick pools across the cavern floor. The thought of that red liquid outside his thick hide was alarming.
Tentatively, he dipped a claw in the pools and brought it to his mouth, his tongue darting out to taste it on instinct and recoiling at the metallic sharpness. He lifted the claw higher, and watched the liquid drip to the floor where it splashed and rippled out in neat circles. He shifted His head again, and then stopped. Where he had once seen, there was now darkness.
Gently, his tongue flicked up and probed the eye, met with the same taste of shed blood. Blinded. Blind. A roar of rage escaped unbidden, causing tremors in the rock. A hide armoured thick that had defended him from a thousand shafts and blades, and this new weapon had found His one point of weakness. He was drowned in respect for this warrior, and something else, something he only knew by instinct.
Fear. He was afraid. Not so invincible as He had once believed, and where one had succeeded, now many more would follow. They would come in their hundreds as news spread of a Dragon laid low, a Dragon spited, and they would bring more of those fire-sticks. Enough, maybe, to hurt Him further. Enough, maybe, to slay him.
No, that would not do, for He was greatest among creatures, and he would not be cowed. Revenge would be had; a warrior’s fate had been offered and spurned, and this time He would not snow mercy. Cities would burn before His honour was restored, His vengeance had. It was time, once more, for Him to emerge and remind the peoples of all the lands why they left in slumbering in peace.
One beat of his wings carried him into the air, another set Him sailing across the cavern and up, up to the mountain’s spire, where long ages ago he had sundered stone and descended into the dark. Now, at last, He would return, and the worlds would again know the terror that came with every beat of His wings and each gout of flame that issued forth from between razor teeth. The light was in sight now, and He flew towards it, out, out into the world, heralded by flames.
Smoke rose slowly through the mountaintop and blackened the sky, and with that smoke, carried in the shadows, came a darker shadow, and a roar of a new age dawning. Wings spread to blot the sun, and cataracts of flame harboured in the stomach of this most ancient of creatures replaced its light; for miles, all was bathed in fiery light, a forewarning of something so old and so new.
Somewhere in that roiling mass of smoke and flame, reptilian lips parted in a cruel smile, and the slits of a single dome-like eye scoured this new land he did not know. Hurricane wingbeats would carry him to where the cattle was richest, and steely talons would prepare the prey. Fiery breath would cleanse His kingdom, and once all this was done, colossal jaws would feast as they had aeons before. The world was changing, and the dragon would take His place as its master.
- The idea for this one came to me when considering the nature of Dragons in various fantasy settings; they're mostly shown as either intelligent but subservient to other races, willingly or otherwise, or they're portrayed as mindless beasts. So at some level this was my attempt to restore balance to the Force, and represent the dragon in a way one rarely sees
- The character of the Dragon in this one is something that I've left deliberately ambiguous. I've tried not to make him a force for good, because he's not, but I don't think he reads as inherently evil either. He's doing what he does because, as far as he is concerned, he is the strongest creature alive, and has that right to do as he pleases. There's an arrogance to him, but only because he's better and he knows it. So maybe he's evil, or maybe he's just doing what he thinks is natural.
- In the style of writing style itself, I've tried to straddle the line between archaic and melodramatic, to add to the impression of the dragon being an ancient force, slightly out of touch but also convinced of his own power; he's not being over the top, just revelling in his own power. Again, I aim for this to add to the ambiguity of the narrator.
- So what is this all for? Well, it may be just a one off, but on the other hand, I've got a few other ideas kicking around that would entail a degree in world-building. Several characters could easily fit this setting, and I quite like the idea of it becoming a series of sorts, but with no real plot other than some very overarching themes, simply exercises in character and style. I've chosen the fantasy setting as it allows me to be far more idiosyncratic in writing than any other kind of world, and gives a lot of creative freedom, a blank canvas so to speak. So there may well be more in this series of 'snapshots' in the near future.
As always, thanks for reading, any comments are welcome