The wind was cold. It was always cold in the mountains. Aaron was prepared. Prepared for the cold, the wind, the snow, but most of all, he was prepared to face the terror that lay waiting. That was his mission, and purpose. All of his life had been dedicated to it. It was not courage, or resolve, or any thought of glory, but that frightening sense of purpose that now guided his steps and steeled his mind against the fierce north wind that blew continuously in these mountains . The wind would not deter him. Nothing would stop him now. Either the beast will die, or I will. Aaron kept this thought in his mind as he trudged onward. The dragon had taken everything from him. That day had turned his simple life into a terrible nightmare from which he could not awaken.
It was ten long years ago….That’s when it began. That’s when everything changed. That’s when Aaron’s whole world came crashing to the ground. That was the day the dragon appeared. It was just before sundown, and Aaron was playing in the streets with some of the other children of the villege. Aaron saw a shape in the northern sky, like a great bird. It was small at first, but grew larger, too large to be any bird he had ever seen. Then someone, Aaron did not see who, cried out “Dragon” and pointed toward the shape in the sky. The village erupted into chaos. Someone bumped into him and he fell back. Then everything was a blur. He heard the sound of running feet and people screaming . He remembered his father running towards him, picking him up, and carrying him to the stables. He remembered being loaded up on a cart with his mother and many of the other children and women of the village. Then there was the fire. Fire everywhere, Aaron’s whole world engulfed in withering flames. The next few minutes, or was it hours, was a blur of heat and smoke and fire. They were attempting to flee, then everything was dark.
The next thing he remembered was the moment that Aaron would remember to the end of his days. Evening had turned to night, and there was foul smelling smoke everywhere. The cart was overturned, and there it was, a great shape in the darkness. It was the dragon’s head, hanging there in the darkness a few yards back down the road. The bright red scales glimmered, reflecting the fires that were scattered about. There were two great black horns jutting out of the beast’s head, making the thing appear larger still. The dragon’s mouth was nearly as wide as it’s entire head, and the monster’s numerous teeth jutted out here and there over it’s lip like great white swords too large to fit into that enormous maw. But the most terrifying thing to the young boy was those eyes, thin black slivers, framed by gleaming yellow, like windows into nothing.
Then his mother put him up on the back of one of the horses, still tethered to the overturned cart. The horse was terrified, pulling against it’s harness, but by whatever grace of the gods or stroke of luck, the horse did not rear up, but only pulled sternly against its harness, digging it’s hooves into the muck of the road. “Hold on Aaron. Don’t let go. Promise me you won’t let go no matter what.” Too frightened to answer, he grabbed the mane and held tightly as he could. Then his mother loosed the horse from it’s harness, and finally free, it tore away down the road at a terrifying pace. Behind him, he saw the figure of his mother disappear into the flames.
That was the last thing he remembered from that day. He did not remember being found still clinging to the horse as it walked along the road toward the capital, a road it had walked many times. He did not remember being taken to the capital with a few other orphans of the most recent dragon attack. It was as though time had stopped for Aaron, and part of his soul would always be trapped in that moment. The next thing he remembered was awaking after a long and troubled sleep and being told by a portly woman that he had been sleeping for three days. But when he awoke, he awoke to a world that was suddenly changed.
It was as though he went to sleep as one person, and awakened another. He found himself filled with a terrible hatred in the pit of his stomach. His parents were dead, his village destroyed, all because of the dragon. A hate was born in him that would come to dominate the rest of his life. While the dragon lived, he would never be free of it. He knew from that moment, either he would kill the monster, or die in the attempt. Nothing else mattered. That was the only thing his reeling mind could seize upon.
Aaron had been a boy of eight when the dragon came to his village. He had been too young to understand that for the people of the Kingdom of Amalia, the dragon was a part of life, and always had been. For as long as anyone could remember, the dragon had lived somewhere in the northern mountains, and every fifteen years or so, it would appear, leaving death and destruction in its wake. The only place in the kingdom that was truly safe from the dragon’s wrath was the capital city of Melato. That city was protected by the sorceror kings. Long ago, they had erected a magical barrier around the city, and magical towers topped with huge white crystals that fired bolts of ice and snow to repel the dragon. The dragon had attacked the city many times, but had never succeeded in penetrating the defenses. The sorceror Kings, for their part, were not idle. They had sent countless scouts into the northern mountains to search for the dragon’s lair. Few returned. On the few occasions that scouts managed to find where the dragon was hiding, there would be a muster, and men would come from all over the kingdom to take up arms and march against the monster. Needless to say, they were never successful. Most of the men sent against the dragon had perished, and after the last great muster about a century ago, when only 250 men returned out of an army of 5,000, no more attacks were attempted. The people simply accepted that this was their fate, and outside of the people fortunate enough to live within the city, all lived in fear of the beast.
All this Aaron learned for the first time when he came to the capital as an orphan. He had never heard of the dragon before, for none spoke of it. It was, as Aaron later learned, an omen of bad luck. To speak of the dragon was said to bring down his wrath, for there was nohing in the land he did not hear. Its very name was feared as though it were the name of death itself, spoken only in hushed whispers.
Aaron was not of noble birth, and had no family outside his own village. As the law of the sorceror kngs decreed, those orphans of the dragon attack who had no where else to go were to be taken in by the families of the city. Many families volunteered for this service. Some did so out of kindness. Others did so for the yearly sum paid by the treasury for the care of the child. If there were not enough volunteers, then families were summoned to the palace to draw lots to determine who would take in a child. Orphans chosen in that fashion often became little more than household servants until they were old enough to leave or ran away on their own. Thus Aaron’s fate was reduced to a game of chance.
Perhaps it was that fate intervened on his behalf, for Aaron was fortunate. He was taken in by a scribe named Renard. Renard was a mild mannered official with light brown wavy hair and a thin mustache. He was a small man by anyone’s measure. He had a slight build and was an altogether unimpressive man to look at. His principal occupation was to record the collection of taxes in long journals. It was a dull and unexciting profession, but it earned him a comfortable life.
Renard had only one born child, a daughter named Rebecca. His wife Lenore had died in childbirth, and he so loved her that he had never remarried. He had always wanted a son to raise, and so saw the orphans of the dragon as an opportunity to get what he thought cruel fate had denied him. Renard treated Aaron as his own son, and taught Aaron all that he could. He sent Aaron to school to learned to read and write. Like so many fathers, Renard hoped Aaron would follow in his footsteps. He was delighted when Aaron quickly learned to read and write. He heaped praise upon the young man for his love of knowledge and books. It was more than he had dared to expect when he adopted a peasant’s child.
Aaron came to appreciate his adoptive father’s intelligence as well, though he often lamented that Renard’s considerable skill with letters was wasted on the dull task of recording taxes. Aaron, for his part, did not cause trouble. He did all that was asked of him. He tended to his chores about the house with more diligence than most children. His life in the village had been that of a child of peasant farmers, and the mundane tasks of maintaining the house, mending what was broken, and tending the garden comforted him, reminding him of his former life. His life in the city became comfortable and most would be satisfied with it, but Aaron was not. He was grateful for his adoptive family, but he never forgot his real family had been taken, and he held onto the memory of them.
Aaron took little interest in city life. The other students at his school were not like him. They were children of noblemen, clerics, scribes, and wizards. They were children of privilage, and to them, Aaron was only a lowly peasant boy, little more than a dog. They made no secret of their disdain for Aaron’s humble background, taking every opportunity to belittle him. Aaron learned to endure in quiet silence. For the most part, Aaron saw them as lazy and undisciplined, lacking the stomach for real work. Aaron thought them little more than strutting pheasants, preening and fawning over themselves, acting as if they were quite important and powerful, then retreating at the slightest difficulty. So Aaron was content to keep to himself, and his peers were usually content to leave him to himself. It hardly mattered anyway, as Aaron was already bent upon his quest, and all else was pushed aside.
Aaron’s adoptive father’s occupation was convenient for his quest. Renard brought him books from the royal library, many of which would have been very difficult to get by any other means. Aaron studied books on the kingdom’s history. He studied the geography of the kingdom. He learned to read maps and understand them. He learned the names of towns and rivers and mountains far from home. He studied books of magic, at least those that the law allowed commoners, and learned to cast many simple spells. He found he had some talent for it, and would have liked to learn more, but the more complicated spells and books of advanced magic were held by the Royal Magician’s Academy, and the students were hand picked by the King, himself. It was nigh impossible for a commoner to gain entrance. So Aaron turned to the study of alchemy, and learned to make powders and mixtures for various purposes. He read all that he could on anything and everything, but he always considered dragon lore his top priority.
He learned all he could about dragons in general, and about the dragon that terrorized the kingdom specifically. What he found, however, was that very little was known, despite the obvious relevance of such knowledge. The difficulty was somewhat understandable, as only a handful could have even claimed to have seen the dragon and lived to tell the tale. Other than the accounts of the attacks spread out from the first one over 200 years ago up until the most recent, there were no books about the subject at all. Aaron pieced together most of what he knew from references to dragons and discussions of them in books on other subjects, and old tales and legends passed down from long before the era of the Sorceror Kings. He searched as much as was possible for books from the other lands that lay beyond the Great Blackwood in the East and across the seas to the south and west, but found none. He thought this somewhat strange. Most dragon references were from books of magic from the empire of Altea which lay beyond the Blackwood. They must have had entire volumes on dragon lore, but the Blackwood was all but impassable, and such a journey would take years, with no guarantee of finding anything more than he already had. So, as a mouse in a poor man’s pantry, he had to make do with what crumbs he could find.
The most useful sources of information about the dragon were the chronicles of the dragon attacks. Aaron studied these over and over, poring over every line. The first attack had been 221 years ago, just before the dynasty of the sorceror kings began. During the first attack, most of the major towns and cities in the kingdom were leveled before the dragon disappeared back into the north. Five years later, the dragon’s lair was discovered and the last king of the Baradar dynasty sent an army of 10000 men against the beast. The attack failed. The dragon had waited until the men entered a narrow valley, then descended upon them as a storm of fire. With the army defeated, the dragon headed straight for Melato. He again destroyed the city, then disappeared into the north. In the chaos that ensued, the king was overthrown, and the kingdom descended into anarchy. It was during this time that the sorceror kings rose to power. By promising to protect the people from the dragon, the first sorceror king, Balthazar, secured the support of most of the nobility, and was named King. His coronation day came when the final stone was laid into the great barrier, and the dynasty began. The next time the dragon came out of the north, it found the city impossible to breach. So, twenty years after the first attack, the third attack ended with only a minimal loss of life .
The dragon returned many times. There were a total of fifteen attacks over the next two hundred years. Aaron studied them all. He searched for some pattern that would give a clue as to where the dragon might be located. He examined all the accounts that might reveal some hidden weak point. He found none. The dragon seemed to always come from different areas in the mountains, and it never attacked the same town twice in a period of fifty years. It had attacked almost every major settlement, city, town, village, and castle in the entire kingdom over its two hundred year campaign. This seemed strange to Aaron, for it seemed more like a military campaign than the rampage of a monster. It couldn’t be a coincidence. The dragon must be intelligent, not like any bird or beast. It was changing its target and route on purpose so it would not be found. An animal would have simply attacked whatever was nearest, had its fill, and moved on. The dragon was not like that. It must know what it’s doing.
That thought only made Aaron all the angrier. A beast mindlessly killing to eat was one thing, but this was different. It had to be. The dragon had to have some other source of food during the long periods between the attacks. It couldn’t be killing just for food or out of some instinct. No, it was killing because it wanted to, like any common murderer or assassin, but strong as a hundred men and armed with the flames of hell itself. He began reasoning as he thought the dragon might, trying to guess at its motivations as if it were a man bent on destruction and death. Little did he know how right he was.
Aaron knew from fairly early on that he would have to use trickery and magic to kill the dragon. He was neither very large nor very strong, and he could scarcely even lift the great swords and spears that the guardsmen used. A blow strong enough to kill the monster was something utterly beyond him. Archery was no use either. All the accounts were in agreement, that no arrow could pierce the scaled monstrosity. No, the only plan that made any sense was to set a trap. It must be something cunning to use the beast’s strength and size against it. Speed and wit were the only weapons that Aaron could count on. If the dragon was indeed as clever as a man, then it could be deceived and tricked just as a man could. Even the strongest warrior or most skilled wizard could fall pray to a simple trap if it were clever enough and well prepared.
All this Aaron learned over the years, and as he grew older, he began to plan for his journeys into the north. He did all he could to keep his plans secret from his adoptive family. No doubt Renard would not approve of searching for dragons in the north. Nevertheless, the explorations would take weeks if not months. Then it would become difficult. He would be gone for long periods. He would have to have some plausible explanation. He feared Renard might turn him out, or worse, turn him in.
Indeed, the law forbade anyone other than those officially dispatched by the royal family to venture into the northern mountains for fear of provoking a dragon attack. At first, Aaron had thought this a reasonable law, but as he read accounts of the dragon attacks, he began to believe the law was born more out of unreasoning fear than wise caution. The dragon had been found on a few occasions. It had been located several times by the spies sent out from Melato, but it was also found once by accident during a search for a fugitive who escaped the palace dungeon, and another time by a hunter who tracked it into the mountains hoping to sell the location for a price. These discoveries seemed to precipitate no response from the dragon. Either it must be relatively easy to remain undetected by the dragon, or the dragon simply did not consider a single person to be much of a threat. Ultimately, none of that mattered, he was resolved to try.
He ultimately had told Renard he was collecting ingredients for his alchemy, and exploring the kingdom so that he might try his hand at mapmaking. Aaron suspected Renard did not entirely believe this explanation, and indeed the scribe did not. Renard was no fool. He had been bringing Aaron books about the dragon since he learned to read. He was certain that his adoptive son’s fascination with the monster that killed his family was more than mere curiosity. When he heard that Aaron was planning to journey about the kingdom, he suspected that Aaron might be looking to find the dragon, and then try to get the King to lead his armies against it. Renard knew well enough what would happen if Aaron’s purpose was discovered. The law was quite clear on the matter. Still, his love for the boy was such that he said nothing, and let Aaron do as he wished. He knew his son well enough to know that once his mind was made up, there was no way to dissuade him. He prayed to all the gods that Aaron would never find the dragon, and that he would come to his senses, but his prayers ultimately would prove fruitless.
All this and more went through Aaron’s mind as he continued on to his destination. All of it would have been for naught, he mused, if he hadn’t had the extraordinary good fortune to actually find the dragon. Aaron turned to look over his shoulder. There was the now familiar figure of Darien the hunter. Darien never seemed troubled by the cold. Aaron had marveled at this since their first journey to the mountains a few months prior. The man seemed somehow immune to it. Indeed he seemed to have the same grim expression beneath his scruffy dark beard no matter the conditions. With his stern countenance, broad shoulders, obvious strength, and unkempt hair, Darien appeared a great beast of a man . His appearance, however, did not match the man, for he spoke as well as a nobleman, and behind his dark eyes was a fierce intelligence which Aaron admired. Whatever lay in the hunter’s past, it was clear he had not always been a wandering hunter.
Aaron had met Darien by chance on his first journey into these mountains. He had just set out from the city of Legano, the northernmost city on the river Idris and the only logical place to begin his search. He was following the lone road that led north. There were no settlements this far north. The road must have led somewhere once, but it was long abandoned and overgrown. Still, it was better than the increasingly rocky terrain. Aaron had been following the road for two days, when he encountered a wolf standing in the middle of the road. Aaron had seen wolves depicted in some of the books he had read, but he had never encountered one before, and to see a large one blocking his path was an unnerving experience to be certain. The wolf gave no sign of attacking, but growled menacingly as he approached, and his horse refused to pass on either side. A few minutes passed, and Aaron weighed his options. He might have simply backtracked some ways and gone around a good ways off the road. Still, it was only a single wolf, and Aaron was not about to back down at the sight of a wolf when he had every intention of hunting much more dangerous quarry. So, he got down from his horse, picked up a stone from the side of the road, and hurled it at the animal, hoping to frighten it away. To his great surprise, the beast caught the stone in it’s mouth, and bounded down the road over the top of a hill and out of sight. Aaron stood in amazement for a moment, then got back on his horse, and continued on up the road. As he topped the hill, it became apparent what the wolf’s purpose was.
There, perhaps a dozen yards ahead, sitting on the ground against an old stump, was a rough looking man. The wolf was standing in front of him, its tail swaying happily as it presented the stone to the man who must have been its master. As Aaron drew closer, the wolf turned to look at him. The man noticed, and looked up at Aaron on his horse. The man spoke “Strange to see anyone this far north.”
“I could say the same to you”, Aaron replied.
“True enough”, the man said.
“You should keep a closer eye on your pet, it was blocking the entire road just over the hill there.” Aaron said sharply. The man laughed back “Oh, he’s not a pet, and he does what he wants.”
“Well, whatever he is, you might find him with an arrow through his hide if he growls at travelers” Aaron replied crossly.
The man then raised an eyebrow and gave Aaron a stern look. For a moment, Aaron thought he might have gone too far and gotten himself into a fight, but the anger seemed to pass from the man’s face. “You should be careful what you say. this is not the capital, and many a man has been killed over cross words. And there are no travelers here. I’ve roamed these lands for many seasons, and I can tell you this road doesn’t go anywhere any civilized person would want to be. No one roams these lands but those who have a reason to be here, and there are few enough of those. There are only fugitives, bandits, and hunters like myself. But you don’t look like any of those, so what, may I ask, are you doing here?”
Aaron hesitated a moment, considering his situation. Would it be wise to reveal his purpose to this strange man? If he knew this terrain and could be hired, he might be useful. On the other hand, he might find it more advantageous to turn me in. Aaron struggled to think of a plausible lie, but none occurred. He was suddenly aware that his clothes marked him clearly as a city dweller, and from a comfortable family. He had not thought to meet anyone here, so dressing inconspicuously was not something he had considered. He could not plausibly claim to be a hunter or a trapper or anything of the sort. Neither could he claim to be a scout or a spy dispatched by the capital, for he was wearing no symbol or uniform that might confirm this. Sensing his hesitation, the man spoke further. “You may as well tell me the truth, as you’ve missed your opportunity to lie. I’ve no interest in interfering in your business so long as it brings me no trouble, but I know these lands and the few who dwell in them well, and if you mean to spend much time here, then I intend to know you as well.”
The wolf was now fixed on Aaron, as if it too could sense Aaron’s trepidation. It began to growl again as it had before. Suddenly, Aaron’s fragile constitution broke, and he blurted it out in a quavering voice. “I came here to search for the dragon of the north. The monster destroyed my village, killed my father and mother, and I mean to end its wretched life or die in the attempt.”
To Aaron’s great surprise, the man hardly reacted at all, though it must have come as a surprise. The wolf ceased it’s growling as if responding to some unspoken command from its master, and laid down at his side. “So, that’s it”, the man said in a tone that sounded less surprised than it ought to have. He paused a few moments, as if considering exactly how to respond to such a strange situation. Finally, the man questioned Aaron, “You just mean to march alone into the mountains to kill a dragon?”
“Well, um, yes” Aaron replied. The man then broke into laughter. “I guessed from your clothes that you were a city lad on some ridiculous quest, but I did not imagine anyone could be so foolish as that.”
“What’s so foolish about it?” Aaron asked “Do you know anything about the dragon? It isn’t invulnerable. There must be a way to kill it”
“Oh, well yes, dragons can be slain. It is no simple task, and only a few can claim to have killed such a creature without an army behind them, but that isn’t the problem. There are leagues upon leagues of hills and valleys far to the east and west. Each has perhaps a dozen caves and crevices where a dragon might hide. You might spend an entire lifetime and still have checked only a fraction of all the hiding places in the whole of the mountains. It is a fool’s errand. Go back where you came from, child. Marry a good woman, live a long life, raise many children and consider yourself fortunate to have the opportunity. Many men would give much more for much less. You will only waste your life pursuing this vengeance.”
Aaron’s anger rose within him and he replied fiercely “It has been found before. It can be found again. It will never be found unless someone is willing to try. Do not disparage the courage and conviction of others because you have none of your own. Whatever life I might have for myself is accursed and wretched if it is bought with the blood of murdered men and women and children. I cannot live knowing that I left their deaths unavenged. I would rather die unmourned in a forgotten land than live as a coward, content to sit behind a wall and eat and drink while others bleed and die.”
Once again, the hunter did not react immediately. He only sat quietly, as if considering what had been said. The wolf had raised its head and turned it slightly to one side, perking it’s ears as if listening to Aaron’s empassioned words. The hunter looked down at the dirt, muttered something which Aaron could not make out, and then looked up to speak, “Well, if that is the case, then I will make no more attempt to dissuade you from your course. You say the dragon has been found before? When, and how did you come by such information?” Aaron proceeded to explain all his reading and everything he had learned about the dragon to that point.
After several minutes, Aaron finally finished explaining all that he knew. “Perhaps I have misjudged you.” the hunter responded “A common fool would not have taken such care and planning. You have clearly planned this for many years, and have come more prepared than most. It is a wise hunter who learns all he can about his prey. Nevertheless, you may know the beast, but you do not know the terrain. With a guide, you might actually succeed in finding the dragon.”
“And who might I hire?” Aaron asked “I have little coin with me. Even were I to return to the capital, I would have to beg my adoptive father for enough money to hire a guide. I have had difficulty enough gathering the provisions I have for myself.”
“It may seem strange to you, but not all men can be bought with silver or gold. Gold is not so valuable as civilized folk imagine it to be. It cannot be eaten, nor drunk. It cannot trap or kill a bird or beast. It is heavy and cumbersome to carry more than a few coins. It will not help a man start a fire, or build a shelter. It is only useful at all because men covet it, and foolishly chase after it, so that they might appear wealthy to other men. They exchange their food, their time, their labor, and sometimes their very lives in the pursuit of it. They buy pretty trinkets from other men who seek the same gold that they do. They build great houses to hold their moneys and their trinkets. They sit upon mountains of junk which does little more than collect dust, then argue amongst themselves whose mountain is the larger.”
“So if you don’t want money, then what do you want? I did not come here to have a stranger speak riddles to me. If you mean to offer your services, then name your price, be it gold or silver or whatever else I might have that has worth to you that I might offer.” Aaron replied, becoming frustrated again.
“Straight to the point, then. Such a strange malady is youth. You have all your lives before you, yet you always seem to be in a hurry. Well, I have little need for gold or money. I gave up living in the cities of civilized men long ago. I only need enough to buy what provisions I cannot find in the wilds, and these are few. You ask what has worth that you might offer me. Is it not obvious? I have had the opportunity to hunt most every bird and beast of the wild, but never a dragon. In the land I come from, far to the east beyond the Blackwood, there has not been a dragon seen in many centuries. They were all hunted and destroyed long ago. In all my travels, I never heard of a live dragon until I came to this forgotten kingdom. The opportunity to hunt a legendary beast is a rare thing indeed, far rarer than any gem of the earth. That has a great deal of worth. ”
“Are you… Are you offering to help me, for nothing” Aaron asked. “Oh, not for nothing.” the hunter replied. “I will have first claim to whatever spoils the dragon may have, and as much as I wish of the scales, claws, teeth, and other trophies that might be taken. If your desire for vengeance is true, I doubt these conditions will give you pause.”
“They will not” Aaron replied
“Then the bargain is struck,” the man remarked “by the way, my name is Darien.”
That had been perhaps the most important moment since his quest began. Aaron had accepted the hunter’s offer of aid, yet he did not entirely trust him either. It was just a bit too convenient for his liking. He suspected from the beginning that there was more to Darien’s story than had been said. He had attempted several times to inquire as to Darien’s past, but never successfully. The hunter was always guarded, as if secrecy were his stock and trade. One thing bothered Aaron most. If Darien really had been living in these lands for many years as he said, how was it possible he didn’t know of the dragon by now? Certainly, the people of the kingdom rarely discussed the dragon as it was considered bad luck, and Darien probably seldom visited the towns, but it seemed more than a little suspicious that one who claimed to know the land so well would not know of its principal danger. Aaron dared not ask the question directly. It was enough that he now had a guide to help find the dragon. The reason was not important, or at least not important enough.
Finding the place had been a combination of Aaron’s considerable research, the skill of Darien, and a bit of luck. It made sense to begin with a search of the previous locations the dragon had been discovered. Aaron had thought it near impossible to find the exact spots, but with the aid of his guide, he was able to use the maps he had drawn to pinpoint some of the locations. The first was in the shadow of one of the higher peaks of the region. The second was near the source of a small river valley. Both were caves, and neither was particularly interesting. Neither showed any sign of being inhabited by anything recently. The only thing they had in common was that they were relatively large and easy to see from a distance, which Aaron thought strange, since he had expected the dragon’s hiding places to be more well hidden. Still, these caves were places where the dragon had been found over a century ago. A more recent site would hopefully be more useful.
The most recent known lair was found just forty years prior, by a search party hunting for a fugitive who had fled into the mountains. This location was an old ruin, one of many in the northern mountains. No one knew how long ago these ruins were made or by whom. They were built into the mountains themselves. No doubt their builders delved deep into the mountains mining for metals and gems. It was said they were from an era before men walked the earth, though no one knew for sure. Whatever treasures they might once have held had been long plundered by treasure hunters during the previous dynasty, when there were still many adventurers and travelers from foreign lands passing through the kingdom. Many of their locations were known to Darien, and he was able to quickly identify this one. It was far to the east, near the borders of the Blackwood. The mountains were higher there, and the terrain more difficult, but Darien knew that land well, and knew the hidden passes amongst the towering peaks.
Like the other sites, however, they found nothing at first. No signs of anything. “Strange” Darien remarked “Every animal leaves signs of it’s recent presence. Most degrade over time, hair, skin and the like, but there are other signs that do not”
“What sort of signs?” Aaron asked.
“Bones and teeth most often.” Darien replied. “A cave that has been the den of a predator will always have them. They may lay undisturbed for decades or even centuries. For a creature large as a dragon, I would expect to see mounds of them. But there is more. If the dragon had been here at all, I would expect to see signs of movement, claw markings in the rock, disturbed boulders. I do not think the dragon was ever here.”
“Then this must not have been where the dragon was found”. Aaron said with a disappointed sigh
“There are many ruins like this one in this area. This is the largest ruin, and the only one I know of with an underground passage large enough for a dragon to hide, but perhaps there are others. Some of these passages run for many leagues under the earth. It may be there are other entrances nearby. If we climb up the ridge to the north and travel west along it, we should be able to see most of the lands around. It should be worth a look.”
They had traveled for perhaps an hour along the ridge when Darien noticed something. “Look there, to the southwest.”
“I don’t see anything.” Aaron said “what is it?”
“There’s a small trail of smoke off in the distance.” Darien answered
“That could be anything.” Aaron protested “It could be a whisp of cloud or fog, or maybe nothing at all.”
“It may be nothing, but there are only so many things that can produce smoke in the mountains, and one is fire.” Darien said.
“You think someone made a camp there?” Aaron asked
“Perhaps, and if so, it might be someone that knows the area better than I who might give us information, but there’s another possibility. In all the accounts you related to me, there was no mention of any scout sent to confirm the dragon’s location forty years ago, nor did it mention that the dragon had awakened when they found it initially.” Darien replied
“You think that the dragon could still be here?” Aaron asked
“I have never seen a dragon, but in my youth I heard tales of them.” Darien explained “It was said that they produce fire even in sleep. Never follow a trail of smoke, it was said, for a dragon may be what you find.”
“I heard no such tales.” Aaron responded “so little is known of them in our land.”
“So it seems.” Darien remarked “A strange marvel it is when a man from a land where a dragon has not been seen in ten centuries knows more of their lore than an entire kingdom besieged by one.”
“Well, let us go take a closer look then.” Aaron said “That’s the only way we’ll ever know for sure”
The two continued along the ridge to the west until they could clearly see the source of the mysterious smoke. There it was, a tiny sliver of smoke issued forth from a crack in the earth. It took another hour for the pair to find a safe path down off the ridge. They approached with caution, and peered down into the opening. Fortunately, the sun was high overhead, and shone at just the right angle for the dragon to come into view. As he looked upon it, Aaron had felt his muscles tighten and fear grip him as his mind again returned to the terror of his youth. There was no mistaking what he saw. The light shone down upon the beast’s head, a sight Aaron could not forget.
It was apparent that the dragon had not crawled through a narrow crack, so they searched for a larger opening. After a bit of searching, they found what looked like a great pit in the earth, but it was not a pit, for on one side, there were stairs descending into an unknown darkness. Darien’s wolf sniffed around the entrance, whimpered, and ran off.
“Well, that’s a fairly good indication that it’s in there somewhere. I haven’t seen a reaction like that from him before.” Darien remarked
“If he’s never smelled a dragon before, how does he know to be afraid?” Aaron asked.
“Who knows,” Darien answered, “Wild animals have senses that we do not understand. He always seems to sense danger, even when the nature of the danger isn’t clear. His instinct has saved me more than once.”
“So will he come back?” Aaron asked
“Probably” Darien replied. “He disappears for days and weeks at a time. I’ve no idea where he goes or what he does.”
“Aren’t you worried he won’t come back?” Aaron questioned, wondering if the man had any feelings at all
“Not particularly,” Darien asked, “I am often involved in…dangerous situations. It’s just as well that he not involve himself with these. We’re standing at the entrance to a dragon’s lair and only one of the three of us was wise enough to run away. So who should be worried over whom, do you think? He’s as likely to outlive me as the other way round.”
Aaron shrugged. There was certainly no arguing that point. The two men had doubtless chosen the greater peril. Aaron looked down into the darkness. The stairs descended into a wide passageway. They went down as far as they could, but the light from the entrance did not extend very far, and they dared not light a torch . It did not matter. This was clearly the place.
That was now about two months ago. It had been the first time they journeyed to the dragon’s lair, and this was the third. The second was to bring up what supplies he would need to lay his traps and kill the dragon. This would be the last. Darien’s canine friend had already disappeared, just as he had on the second trip. Perhaps the wolf was the only one that had any common sense. Indeed, Aaron wondered to himself if he was making his last journey, if ultimately the quest would end in death. Everything up to that point had been focused upon learning about the dragon, finding it, and preparing to face it. He had not contemplated failure, because the prospect of facing that possibility was far ahead of him. Now, it was close at hand, and he found himself for the first time truly appreciating the possibility that his short life would end. There was no thought of backing out, only the fear and trepidation that even the most courageous men face when they walk down a path from which they may not return.
It was now that the years of preparation would be put to the test. Aaron and Darien went to the spot where they had left the supplies they had brought a few weeks earlier. “Well, I suppose you mean now to build some sort of trap, else why crate all this wood and rope up here, but what are all these bottles of…’whatever they are’ used for” Darien asked.
“Most of it is for mixing alchemical agents. The powders and liquids are for those purposes. Some of it is reagents for spells. Some are balms and salves for injuries. Then there are tools I might need to construct the trap.” Aaron answered
“You mean to poison the dragon? You would need a truly massive amount to bring down a dragon, or a deadlier poison than I have ever seen.” Darien remarked
“No. There are poisons that can be used to kill a horse or a cow, but the problem is that administering the agent is difficult, even for domestic beasts, so unless you know of a way to get a dragon to eat several pounds of something utterly disgusting, a poison will not do.” Aaron quipped “These are meant to be an annoyance, to distract it or get its attention. If I’m right, this won’t be like hunting any mere beast. The dragon is intelligent, too intelligent for a beast. Why else would it attack so seldom, and never in the same place. Why would the dragon move after it was found, even when it easily dispatched its attackers? What beast behaves in such a way?”
“As a hunter of wild beasts, I must admit I find the dragon’s attacks somewhat…odd. There are stories told in my homeland of dragons that spoke in human speech, though I thought them a mere invention of bards and poets. It is said that there was even a war fought with the dragons long long ago, when the ancient gods still ruled mankind. Every child in my homeland knows the legend. The dragons were the evil enemies of the righteous gods, and the gods waged war upon them and destroyed their power forever, scattering them to the winds. So the old story went. I have never given much heed to such things. A story gets larger with every retelling. Who can say what actually happened so long ago. Perhaps there is more truth to the old tales than I thought.” Darien replied
“Whatever the case, it does not kill because it needs food. A few humans and livestock every fifteen years, then nothing. It kills because it wishes to, and for no other reason.” Aaron said, his voice turning to anger. “If it needed to eat so little and so seldom, why travel so far to feed? We are leagues away from any settlement of man. We have seen flocks of mountain sheep and goats which might make for easier prey. A wolf may take a sheep from a shepherd’s field, but he does not hunt the shepherd.”
“Yes, that is true. You would make a fine hunter. Beasts will take the easiest meal they can find. Most will avoid a fight if they can. Every hunter knows this truth.” Darien confirmed “So, if it cannot be lured by a meal to a trap, what exactly do you plan to do?”
“I have to get close. Close enough to use these powders and spells. They won’t do any damage to the dragon, but they will make it angry, hopefully angry enough it will give chase. Then I simply have to stay alive long enough to get it where I want it.”
“Haha, staying alive being chased by a dragon will be no small matter. And where exactly do you plan to have it chase you, assuming you have succeeded in staying alive?” Darien inquired
“Well, there is a cliffside about a hundred yards from the entrance to the pit. The drop must be a hundred feet or more straight down.” Aaron replied again
“Ahh, I think I know what you are planning now.” Darien said “Let us get to it. The longer we delay, the more chance it will waken before we are prepared.”
It took about a day to prepare everything that was needed. Darien focused on constructing the various traps Aaron had planned to delay the beast and finally, to kill it. Aaron focused on preparing the alchemical powders and spells. By the next morning, they were as prepared as they could possibly be.
The next morning, they stood at the top of the stairs, looking down into the darkness. “You need not risk your life Darien. I could not have come this far without your help. I already owe you a debt I can never repay.” Aaron said
“No, I came this far of my own accord. I am a hunter, and this is my greatest hunt. I could not call myself a hunter if I turned back now, at the final moment.” Darien replied “Besides, this plan stands a much better chance of working with both of us.”
“Then we will proceed as we discussed. We find the dragon, and you will go back to the entrance to get into position. There’s no point having both of us down here where there’s no room to move.” Aaron instructed
“Very well.” Darien replied “Let us light the torches, and hope the dragon is not far down the passage.”
Aaron spoke a word and a tiny spark flew from his fingers, setting the torches ablaze. The two then started down the steps, and into the darkness beyond. After perhaps a hundred feet, The passage turned somewhat to the left. Aaron had expected this, based on the relative positions of the opening and the crack where they had first seen the dragon. Darien walked along the left hand wall, and Aaron walked upon the right. Aaron took care to watch the walls carefully. He took notice of every alcove and crack in the wall. Any of them could be critical when he passed them again. Where he found an outcropping of rock, he hung particular types of alchemical pouches. They would be needed. Darien too watched the path, but focused on what was ahead, looking for the dragon. On into the darkness they slowly went.
It was not long until the light from the fissure became visible. It was difficult to tell how far ahead it was in the shapeless darkness. As they proceeded, it grew larger and brighter. Still, little light shone in. It was mid morning and the sun was too low in the east to shine over the mountains. They could see only as far as their torches would illuminate, and the light of the crack, hanging in the darkness above and ahead of them. They kept on until the walls unexpectedly disapeared on both sides. A few feet ahead, the passage appeared to end in an abrupt drop. They stopped, and peered ahead. The passage had opened into a large cavern. It was difficult to guess how large the cavern might be. There, in what must have been the middle of the cavern, was the dragon. The light from the crack had grown bright enough that the red of the dragon was visible, though little else was. They slowly walked up to where the passage ended and looked over the edge. The drop was not so far as Aaron had initially feared. It was only fifteen or twenty feet, though the darkness made it difficult to discern. It was too far to risk a jump at any rate, and scaling it with the dragon already in pursuit would be near impossible. Fortunately, there was a narrow set of stairs near the center of the passage which led down into the cavern.
“This I must do alone.” Aaron said “I will wait long enough for you to reach the entrance before I attempt to waken the dragon.”
“Are you certain?” Darien replied.
“Yes” Aaron insisted. “This means nothing if we can’t kill it. We have an advantage as long as it thinks I’m alone. The element of surprise is everything.”
“Well, if it is as smart as you say it is, then it will certainly not expect anyone to do anything this foolish.” Darien quipped back
“I’m counting on it.” Aaron said
“Then good luck”. Darien said. As he turned to walk away, the two looked at each other. Aaron wondered at the hunter. Just as always, he retained that same blank expression. We both may be dead in a few minutes and he looks as if he’s just taking a morning stroll, Aaron wondered to himself. I wonder what it took to make such a man as that. Ah well, there is no time to ponder over it anymore.
Aaron waited a few minutes, so that Darien might be a ways back down the passage before risking further exploration. There was risk enough as it was. The smoke and light from the torches might awaken the beast at any time. When he felt sufficient time had passed, Aaron slowly made his way down the stairs. They went to the left around the edge of the cavern wall, down into the shadows. At any other moment, Aaron might have found the exploration of such a place fascinating, but now there was no room for anything else in his consciousness but the reality of his situation. He kept a close watch on the center of the room where the dragon must have been, watching for any sign or sound of movement. The stairs ended shortly, the floor of the cavern was much nearer than it had first appeared. That will make things much easier, Aaron thought.
Aaron took his first few steps toward the center of the room. He could clearly hear the dragon’s breathing now, slow and quiet, in and out. Aaron had managed to remain calm to this point, but now, so close to that monster of fire and death, his heart began to race. He struggled to keep his mind in check, focusing on searching the floor of the cavern in front of him. Only about ten feet into the cavern, Aaron’s torch began to illuminate the shape of the dragon. He walked forward, looking to see the size and shape of the monster, when suddenly he lost his footing and stumbled. He caught himself so that he did not fall entirely and quickly took several steps back. He lowered his torch to see what he had tripped over.
Damn it, how could I have been so careless, Aaron thought. There on the floor was the end of the long tail of the beast. He had been so be busy looking at the shape in the darkness that he had missed it. He heard a sound of the dragon’s breath change slightly. Aaron’s heart raced out of control. He took a stone from his pack and brought it close to his mouth. “Astra”, he whispered, and the stone burst forth with light. Aaron then tossed it toward where he guessed the end of the passage might be. The cavern, the stairs, the opening of the passage, and the dragon were now fully visible. The spell would last only a few minutes, but more than enough time. He ran back to the stairs, climbed them quickly, and ran into the passage to where there was a small alcove. Out of view, he stopped to listen.
He heard the scratching of claws upon stone, the crunching of brittle old bones, and the low guttural growl of a creature unpleasantly awakened from sleep. The beast was awake. Soon enough it would come down the passage looking for the thing that had awakened it. He heard a few thundering steps. It must be turning around, he thought, though he dared not check. He hoped to remain quietly hidden while the dragon went up the passage. It would make the rest of his task much easier, though he doubted he would be so fortunate. He took the largest of his alchemical creations from his back. A large round bundle of burlap and twine. At the slightest fire, it would burst open into a blast of smoke and light. He tied a cloth around his head which covered his mouth and nose. He was prepared, and the dragon would not be.
Aaron heard nothing more for several moments, then he heard something that froze his heart in his chest. A voice spoke to him. It was a slow, gravelly, grumbling speech, obviously not that of a man, yet clearly intelligible. “Well, who are you and what do you want?” the dragon’s voice asked. Aaron said nothing. The silence lasted for what seemed an eternity. Again, the dragon spoke “Where are you, little man, and what have you come here for? Are you so frightened at the sight of me that you have lost your ability to speak?” Again, Aaron said nothing. The dragon let out what sounded to be a sigh of disgust. “You have gone to the trouble of coming here and lighting up my cavern. You may as well deliver whatever ridiculous message you have for me and begone.” Aaron’s fear suddenly gave way to confusion. What does he mean? A message? Was he expecting someone?
“Bah, does he have nothing more than sniveling cowards to deliver his ridiculous requests now? Well, whatever your message is, tell him it is too soon, and I have no interest in sinking any more ships or pillaging any more caravans from the east. Does he still not have enough gold to satisfy his greed? Go back and tell him I have watched the passage just as he requested, and he should be grateful for this is more than I promised.” the dragon grumbled angrily. He stomped about and it sounded as if he was lying back down.
Aaron was stunned and confused at this turn. What on earth was the dragon talking about. He thinks I’m a messenger? For who? Who would send a message to a dragon? Whatever the case, he would have to try something else to get the dragon to chase him. He could simply use his concoction preemptively, but he needed the dragon to be facing him for it to have the greatest effect. He stepped out from the alcove. The light from the stone was still strong, showing the whole bulk of the beast. It had shiny red scales on the back, with yellowish orange underneath, lightening to almost white at the belly of the beast. A great ridge of spiky triangular scales ran down the beast’s back. It’s head must have been the size of a house. It’s claws were each large as an ox cart. It’s great wings were folded but still covered almost the whole of the dragon’s back. There it was, its back was too him and it was, as he had suspected, begun to lay down again. Aaron had to think of something.
“Oh great dragon of the north. Pray tell me your name?” Aaron said loudly. The words reverberated and echoed in the cavern. The dragon turned, and wheeled round, looking straight at him. Stark terror gripped him, but he knew he must stay calm. The dragon’s head was perhaps twenty feet in front of him, and he remembered the last time he had seen that face, and those eyes. He remembered his resolve, and everything that he had worked for. He thought of the hunter waiting to spring the trap outside and how he seemed never to be phased by anything. The dragon thinks I’m someone else, and I should let him continue to think that, Aaron thought.
“Oh, so you can speak then.” the dragon replied, “Well I have no name that human speech could reproduce, and it has been so long since I saw another of my kind, I can scarcely remember it anyway. You may call me Gamira, for so I have been named by humans, though I know not what it means.”
Aaron struggled to think of something to say. He wanted to know who the dragon expected, and why. He finally stammered, “Oh great Gamira, my master sends his regards, and asks what you plan to attack in the kingdom of Amalia, what route you shall take and what villages shall you burn?”
The dragon did not reply at first, and Aaron wondered if the dragon was seeing through his ruse. “Oh, you are asking me, are you? And here I thought you had come to give me instructions as to where I should attack. They have never bothered to ask me before? Has something changed? Is there a new master of the palace?”
Suddenly, an idea struck him, but no, it couldn’t possibly be that. He can’t possibly mean that palace. “The master has had a change of heart, and has decided to defer to your ancient wisdom on this matter” The dragon drew nearer, coming very close. Aaron gripped one of his potions in his pocket and took a step back.
The dragon suddenly raised its head and bellowed loudly in what seemed like laughter. Small plumes of fire escaped from his nose. “You’re not from the palace at all are you? Change of heart? Deferring to my ancient wisdom? How amusing. I know the master’s heart, just as I knew the previous master’s and the one before that. I knew the first master. He had wisdom enough for all, though his descendants have long since lost it. Men raised in luxury grow fat and lazy and arrogant, and that is the master I know, and you do not. Who are you really? Choose your words carefully, for they may be your last.”
There was no denying the truth anymore. He could simply run, but there was no guarantee the beast would follow, at least not immediately. No, this was a battle of wits. The dragon had to see him as a threat, and not merely an annoyance. “I am Aaron. I lived in one of the villages you destroyed. I have come searching for you. I hoped if I found you, then I would be able to convince the King to send his armies to kill you. Now that I have awakened you, I am surely doomed.”
The dragon bellowed it’s terrible laughter again, filling the cavern roof with smoke which whirled out the open crack in the ceiling. “Ah, so you’re just some stupid fool thinking to make himself a hero. Just who do you imagine the master you pretended to serve a moment ago actually is? ” Aaron did not reply, though he began to understand too late what was really going on. It all made sense. The sorceror kings had come to power at around the same time as the dragon appeared. They would always be in control of the kingdom as long as the dragon lived because they could defend the people from it.
“Yes, you’re beginning to understand, aren’t you, foolish boy?” The dragon scolded “I serve the masters of the city of Melato, the ones you call the sorceror kings. All that I have done for the past two hundred years, they have commanded. Whatever hatred your heart has assigned to me is sadly misplaced, for I am only the instrument of destruction, not the cause.”
There Aaron stood, in the presence of the very thing he had spend most of his life hating, unable to speak, move, or even think. It was unbelievable, impossible. Had it all been for nothing? Had hs entire quest had not been to avenge his parents, but only to break the sword of their real killer.
Seeing Aaron’s reaction, the dragon continued on. “Since you have come all this way, let me tell you a story. Two hundred fifteen years ago, an ambitious young king of an insignificant kingdom heard a dragon had been seen in the north. He hoped to become a legend in his own time, and bring back a great horde of treasure to share with his people. He marched into the northern mountains at the head of a great host of knights, archers, mages, and footmen, but the mountains were treacherous, and their going was slow. The dragon was too clever and saw them long before they could see him. The dragon waited until they were sleeping, and descended upon them at night, killing most before they could even draw their swords. The king managed to escape, running away with a handful of guards while the remainder of his soldiers fought the dragon to cover his retreat. All the soldiers who remained were killed, with the exception of one clever young mage. He had run at the first sign of battle to find the dragon’s lair, and he succeeded. His skill with magic was unmatched, and he wove a magical spell to ensnare the dragon and slowly choke him to death. Sure enough, the dragon fell into the trap. Faced with the prospect of a slow death, the dragon struck a bargain with the mage. In exchange for his life, he agreed to serve the mage and his descendants for as long as their line remained unbroken. The mage was both clever and wise beyond his years. He set the dragon upon the kingdom, waging war upon the king and the corrupt nobility. In little time, the kingdom toppled and fell, and the mage came to power. From then on, every few years the mage would summon the dragon to attack the city and put on a grand show for the populace, and occasionally sack the castle of a rebellious noble. Alas, he died, and his son lacked the wisdom of his father. There have been many masters since then, some better and some worse, but none the equal of the original.”
Aaron was still in shock. In his stunned state, he had forgotten all about his quest. All he could think of was one question. “But why?” he spoke aloud, unable to stop himself “Why order the slaughter of their own people?”
Once again, the dragon bellowed with laughter. “Why? Why not? Men kill their enemies to maintain power. They kill their neighbors in war to take their land. They kill each other in petty disputes over women, gold, and honor. When there is not enough food, they turn upon each other, and leave the weakest to starve. Some even kill simply because they enjoy it. Men kill for the same reason they do everything else, to get what they want. Whether they use a sword, spear, their own hands, or a dragon, hardly makes any difference. If the fox wishes to know why he is hunted and killed, does he ask the hound, or its master? You have no more business here. Leave this place, and consider yourself fortunate, for few have seen such a sight as I and lived to tell the tale”
Aaron’s anger rose again in him. It was not like before. This was a blind fury, fury at the dragon, at the king, at his own foolishness, and everything else. This could not be the way his quest ended, scolded by a dragon and shooed away like a bothersome gnat. “I’ll tell everyone. Everyone will know what the sorceror kings are doing” Aaron shouted back in anger with tears in his eyes.
The dragon replied “Oh, you will, will you. And you think people will believe you. Would you believe it if you hadn’t heard it from me? Even if they do, do you think the king will just give up. I know him well. He would have you killed just for saying you found this place. If your hatred is so great, turn it upon the king. Kill him if you can. I should be glad to be rid of his nagging.”
Aaron thought for a moment on what the dragon had said. He thought of returning, plotting some rebellion or assassination, but no. That was not the answer. For centuries, the dragon and the kings had shared in this bloody compact. The dragon might have fled far away at any time, and he might even have killed the first sorceror king when the spell was lifted. The dragon was not a dumb beast. He was not a sword. He was a willing participant from the very start, and he cannot escape his guilt. For all his pretty words, the dragon has said nothing to absolve himself. He was and is a murderer, and worse yet. He had held an entire kingdom under a shadow of fear, for the whim of some powerful man. The dragon and the sorceror king were really no different. They were one and the same. Two monsters that held the lives of men, women, and children so cheap that they might be slaughtered on a whim like cattle and sheep. This could not stand. The only course was to go forward, to finish what he had begun. He would kill the beast, or die in the attempt.
But now, the dragon was already turning back to lie down. Aaron had to say something, but what. What could incur the wrath of the beast? What would such a powerful thing consider a threat? Then a thought occurred to Aaron. Why had the dragon continued to serve the sorceror kings for so long? What does he gain? He has so little regard for men, why should he keep his word all this time?
The dragon was lying down. The light of the crystal was beginning to fade. There was no more time. He had to act now. What could he say that would move the dragon? What would make him a threat? What did the dragon fear? Suddenly, the answer came like a thunderbolt from the heavens. Aaron stood, steeled himself, gripped the round bundle in his arms tightly and spoke. “Perhaps you’re right. There’s no point bothering with any of this. I’ll leave this kingdom. I’ll go east, through these mountains, or through the Blackwood. I’ve come this far, after all.”
The dragon stirred, turning back toward Aaron. His look had changed. It was clear at least the dragon was now confused, uncomfortable, and no longer amused at the situation. He’d hit the mark for certain. The reason the dragon had not turned upon the mage when he was released was obvious. Others would have come, more and more, hunting him to the ends of the earth, perhaps stronger than this mage. It would be impossible to ever know how much of the scheme belonged to the beast and how much to the first sorceror king, but one thing was clear, the dragon had conspired with the rulers of Amalia because it feared and hated mankind as much as mankind hated it. The dragon had nothing to fear from the kingdom of Amalia while its bargain with the sorceror kings held, but Amalia was not the only land. Darien had gotten here from the east somehow, and if Darien’s reaction were any indication, then every hunter that heard would race to see who first could slay the dragon.
“I must thank you, Gamira, for opening my eyes. What a sad little kingdom this is. I shall be glad to leave it behind. Perhaps my story will amuse the Alteans. I do not think I should have anything to fear from them. ” Aaron continued
The dragon was now clearly nervous. It breathed more quickly. The fire in its nose seemed to burn brighter than before. It was thinking, considering, wondering what its next move might be. “You think yourself a clever boy, don’t you? You think you will simply be able to bring the armies of Altea down upon me, or you will set their rangers upon me? They will never find me. I am one dragon amidst miles upon miles of uninhabited wastes. They will never find me. I can flee north where the cold will freeze a man’s blood in his veins. I am utterly beyond you.”
“Maybe so,” Aaron retorted “but then neither will your master be able to find you? If you hold your promise to a dead king from long ago to be so important, will you so quickly abandon it? Weren’t you supposed to be guarding this passage? That is what you said, is it not? That the king ought to be grateful for this? How curious that the sorceror king should assign the dragon such a mundane task as guarding a nameless tunnel in a nameless land. I wonder what might be so important at the other end of this tunnel? A curious mystery, do you not agree?”
The dragon was now clearly very angry. It was poised, tensed, just as Aaron was. Here he stood, face to face with the monster of his nightmares, and it was every bit as afraid of him as he was of it. He savoured the sudden rush of turning the tables upon the monster. He was prepared. His plan relied upon misdirection, distraction, and the blind rage of a beast which was bent upon his death. The dragon’s anger, now obvious, was just what Aaron needed. Its rage would be its undoing.
“Well, boy, perhaps you should see for yourself. I will even let you pass.” The dragon said as it lurched to one side of the cavern.
“No, I think not. The light spell is already beginning to fade, and I suppose it is easy enough to become lost in these tunnels.” Aaron said with a sly smile “Who knows how many cracks and crevices there might be in these mountains. I would wager there are other ways into this tunnel that a dragon would find difficult to negotiate. Then again, why should I bother looking. You slept so soundly earlier, even a clumsy fool like myself might easily move past unseen. I have only to lead them here. I wager that many a burglar and thief would pay well for such an opportunity.” Aaron feigned a chuckle, and turned his back to the dragon, this calculated insult would certainly spur the dragon to action or nothing would. He walked down the passage slowly, deliberately, watching for the alcove on his left.
“Arrogant child.” the dragon growled. “You think yourself cleverer than me? You think yourself to be my equal? You are foolish to mock me after I have deigned to let you live. I am Gamira, scourge of Amalia. For two hundred years I have kept your pathetic excuses for kings upon their paper throne. For two hundred years you have had peace and prosperity, and at what cost, a few hundred every decade. Many more have starved in the streets of Melato while your nobles ate themselves fat. You are a fool. You will only bring ruin upon yourself. There are worse monsters than I.”
Aaron stopped, looked over his shoulder to speak again. The alcove was there upon his right. The dragon was now at the entrance to the cavern, its eyes looking down the passage fixed upon Aaron. “Of that there can be no doubt. After all, aren’t you the hound and not the master. You said as much. A lowly dog can hardly be blamed for following the commands of its master. You might be counted as loyal a dog as ever there has been, so dutifully following your master so long after his death, obeying his children and grandchildren even as you did him.”
He heard the dragon breath deeply, but before the dragon could exhale, Aaron jumped into the alcove. “DIE!!!” The dragon hissed as it breathed out its terrible wrath. Aaron felt the roaring heat of dragon fire whirring by him, heating the air hot enough to burn his skin. He took a canteen of water from his pack, whispered a word of magic, and poured it over himself. Then he used another spell to light the fuse on his round bundle. He peered around the alcove entrance and threw his bomb at the dragon’s mouth. A moment later, a loud bang and a flash. The dragon let out terrible sounds of coughing and wheezing. The powder was doing its work. He leapt out of the alcove and ran straight toward the dragon which was flailing about in confusion. “My eyes!!! My eyes!!!, curse you, you filthy insect.” The dragon wailed. Aaron ran past the dragon, shutting his eyes as he ran through the lingering cloud of dust, then leapt down to the cavern floor. There he found the tail of the beast. I must be quick, he thought. The powder will not last much longer. He pulled from his back a length of rope, twenty feet when uncoiled with a loop at one end. At the other end were many smaller ropes, with hooks upon their ends. The dragon’s flailing slowed as the powder’s effect weakened. Aaron slipped the loop around the dragon’s tail, and pulled it tight.
The dragon was beginning to open its eyes, water streaming from both. “Sunder” Aaron shouted, and the already fading light crystal at the room’s center shattered. The light from the ceiling and the fire from the dragon’s head were still clearly visible, and there was no doubt the dragon would be able to see him very soon once its eyes fully recovered. Aaron would not be so kind as to give them an opportunity. He drew another crystal from his pack, smaller than the first, and painted on one side with a special mixture to direct the light. He ran straight up to the dragon, just beneath his head. The dragon breathed in. It had seen him. “Astra” Aaron shouted. The crystal flared with light. The dragon’s eyes reflected bright yellow rings around his larger pupils as the crystal shone directly into them. Aaron’s aim had been perfect. He saw a look of terrible pain wrack the dragon’s face as its eyes shut and its head whipped backwards. It’s fire burned into the ceiling. It stomped and the cavern shook. Aaron quickly ran to the stairs, climbed up, and ran down the passage with the crystal lighting his way. It was now down to a chase. Aaron heard the dragon charge down the passage behind him. It could not have recovered its vision yet. It was just blindly charging after the sound of Aaron’s footsteps. Aaron took a handful of smaller bundles from his pack, and tossed them back down the passage towards the cavern. He yelled back down the passage. “Does it hurt, worm? What’s wrong with your eyes? I’m right here.” Aaron had chosen that spot with purpose. He ducked back into another alcove, quickly grabbed two small fluffy balls from a pocket and shoved them in his ears, covering his ears with his hands besides.
“CURSE YOU!!!!” The dragon wailed as it breathed fire down the passage. Thunder sounded in the passage. The effect of his small bombs was apparent. Even with his ears plugged, the sound was painful. Several loud thundering booms souned in the cavern and the passage as the dragon’s fire reacted with Aaron’s concotion. The sound echoed for several seconds. The dragon wailed again. Aaron heard a crash and felt the ground shake. The dragon must have hit its head on ceiling, or fallen. Aaron jumped out of the alcove and ran further down the passage. The dragon was quiet for a bit, no doubt recovering, but the entrance was still quite far. He lit another small powder bomb and dropped it as he ran. It was now a matter of keeping the beast off balance until he got to the entrance. As he passed the packs he had hung on the walls, he lit them, and each exploded in a cloud of white smoke. Nothing so elaborate as the powder bombs, but enough to irritate the dragons enflamed senses. Every few feet, Aaron lit another thunder bomb and through it back down the passage. He ran as fast as he had ever run, but he began to hear the dragon gaining ground. He had to reach the entrance far enough ahead or he would be doomed for certain.
Finally the passage began to lighten, and he could see the stairs. He clambered up the stairs as quickly as possible. He lit his final powder bomb and rolled it down the stairs. It exploded to light just as the first one. He heard the dragon curse again and saw fire reach the foot of the stairs. He was closer than Aaron had thought. There was no time to lose. If he was lucky, the trap at the entrance might buy him a moment or two, but it might not trigger at all. He had to reach the cliff. He ran, ignoring the pain in his legs and chest. He ran straight over the first trap he had laid for the dragon, a shallow pit covered with an animal skin. The skins held his weight just as intended. They would not hold the dragon. He ran on, perhaps thirty yards, then turned over his shoulder. He saw the dragon emerge from the pit. As it did, it stepped on the patch of ground Aaron had prepared. The dragons front claw slid down into the shallow pit. The pit was filled with a mixture of water and an alchemical mixture which would burn the skin. The bottom was lined with long nails, the longest Aaron had been able to find, pointed upward and held with a glue made from animal fat. The dragon wailed in pain once again as the nails tore into its front claw. The mixture burned the dragon’s skin and where it seeped into the wounds the pain was as excrutiating as anything the ancient monster had experienced in its long life. It cursed and belched fire into the air. Then it took wing, just as Aaron had planned. Little did the dragon know that Aaron had dug no more pits. Aaron rounded a large boulder, and looked at the cliff, just fifty yards ahead. He ran on. He saw the cliff growing larger. Darien was certainly in position by now. The ropes were all in position. As the dragon flew around the bend, it saw Aaron clearly. Fixated upon him, it did not notice the ropes. As it charged on, the taught ropes snapped and pulled, slowing the dragon and disrupting it’s flight. Some triggered mechanisms which flung rocks upon the dragon, or up into its wings. None of these stopped the dragon, but they were not made for that purpose. Finally the cliff was close. Twenty yards, fifteen, ten.
Darien was ready. He held out the long thin climbing rope with a wooden pole. Aaron grabbed it as he ran past, and then leapt off the cliff. Aaron gripped the rope and fell, bracing himself. He hit the rock face hard a few feet below the cliff, held on, and waited. It was all up to Darien now. The dragon flew on, fixated upon Aaron. As he leapt off the cliff, the dragon wailed. “Now I have you, wretch. You will BURN!!!!” The dragon sailed over the edge and down the cliff face. It expected to see Aaron clambering down the cliff, but there was nothing. The dragon’s confusion would not last long.
Just behind the dragon, as it had passed, the steady handed hunter had pulled the final rope taught, just behind the dragon’s tail. The rope had lain on the ground parrallel to the cliff but was now raised from the ground to several feet above, perfectly positioned. Each end of the rope was attached to a large boulder. Darien and Aaron had taken care to choose two that were just at the edge of the cliff, boulders that would fall into the ravine with just a little push. A push the dragon would unwittingly provide. The long rope attached to the dragon’s tail, a thing the dragon had not yet even noticed, slid across the heavier rope strung between the boulders. The heavy hooks hung lower skipping along the ground, and as intended, they caught the rope. The barbed hooks dug deep into the fibers of the rope, and it would have taken a mighty man to detach them.
When the dragon did not see Aaron climbing down the cliff, it slowed and beat its wings thinking to fly back up and see what was going on, but it’s speed had already carried it too far down the cliff, and the trap was sprung. The dragon felt a strange tug upon its tail just as it began to pull up in its flight. As it now flapped its great wings, holding its position, it looked up. To the dragon’s complete amazement, it saw Aaron hanging against the cliff face, just a few feet beneath the edge. It also saw two massive boulders falling quickly down the ravine. The dragon’s anger gave way to confusion, as it stared for a moment, wondering what sort of trick this was. The dragon saw a large long rope tied to the two boulders. The dragon’s eyes quickly followed the rope to the hooks, and the hooks to the second rope, and then its own tail. The beast knew now that it was doomed. The boulders were huge, far too heavy to lift even for a dragon. The boulders fell faster than the rope, passing the dragon. For a few terrible moments, the dragon watched the rope lazily follow the boulders down the ravine. Then the dragon felt the ropes pull taught. The weight pulled straight down on the dragon’s spine, breaking it in several places at once. The dragon’s wings were useless against the weight, and they were ripped down along with the rest of it. The dragon let out one final wail and breathed its last fiery breath, sending smoke up the cliffside.
Darien had watched from the cliffside. He had seen the dragon’s body contort and heard the cracking of the spine. He knew well enough that it was now over. If the dragon was not already dead when it hit the bottom of the ravine, it would not live long with such injuries. Darien walked over to cliff side and pulled Aaron up. Then, they both stood at the edge, looking down. They could see the red and yellow of the dragon’s scaly hide against the gray rocks at the bottom of the ravine, but it was too far too make out much else. Smoke lingered in the air from the dragon’s death throes.
It was Darien who broke the silence. “Well, your plan has succeeded, but taking back proof of the beast’s death will prove difficult. That must be at least a hundred feet straight down, maybe more. It could take hours to find a safe path down. You should rest for now. I’ll see if I can find a way down.”
Aaron nodded, but said nothing. How could he begin to explain to his companion what had transpired in the tunnel. Aaron was now attentive to the burning of his legs. He had never run so fast in all his life. His right arm was badly bruised from crashing into the cliff. His mind and body were exhausted, and he fell into a deep sleep.
When Aaron awoke, it was already dark. Darien had started a fire, and was sitting quietly on a rock next to it. The wolf had returned at some point, and was laying quietly by the fire, enjoying the warmth. Aaron got up, walked over to the fire, and sat down. Without speaking, Darien handed him a flask of water. Aaron took a long drink, but did not speak.
“I will not ask what happened in the passage.” Darien said, “but I can tell from your expression that it was not what you expected.” The hunter was perceptive as always.
“Your tales were right.” Aaron replied, “Dragons can speak.” For the first time, Darien actually looked somewhat surprised.
“I thought I heard words in its bellowing, but I dismissed it as the echos of the mountains and my imagination. So what did it say?” Darien asked.
“I’m not sure where to begin.” Aaron replied “I’m not even sure you will believe me.”
“Well, this day has been strange enough as it is. I suppose I would believe most anything at this point.” Darien replied.
“The dragon was not what I thought it was. Nothing is what I thought it was.” Aaron said. “All those attacks, all that death and destruction. It was all part of a scheme to rule the kingdom, and for two hundred years, it has worked perfectly.”
“What do you mean? What scheme?” Darien inquired.
Aaron proceeded to explain everything to his companion. Darien nodded along as Aaron explained how the dragon had confused him for a messenger from the king, then how it had laughed at his foolishness, and how he had finally taunted the dragon into a rage. Finally, when his explanation was finished, Aaron asked of the hunter “well, what do you make of it?”
“It certainly is an unbelievable story. I doubt the dragon’s words were a lie, but I doubt also that they were entirely truthful.” Darien replied
“What do you mean?” Aaron questioned
“Well, the dragon revealed more than it meant to when it first encountered you. When it assumed you were a messenger, it revealed things inadvertently that were dangerous for you to know. Those were the only words I think were completely true. Everything the dragon said afterwards was a feint, or I suspect it was. It tried to use your youth and inexperience against you by diverting your anger elsewhere, undermining your confidence by appearing to laugh at you and ignore you. The fear you saw in the beast at the end of your conversation was likely there almost from the start. It probably suspected a trap from the very beginning, and all of its words were an attempt to get rid of you without having to actually attack. It is likely the dragon planned to wait for you to retreat, then leave its lair a few days later. We would not have gotten far by then, and the dragon would have easily found us from the air. It was clever of you to taunt the dragon as you did. You forced it to choose between perils. On the one hand was the peril of a possible trap, and on the other hand was the peril of having the passage discovered by Altea. He could not risk that, especially when he heard that you knew about the tunnels here?”
“Why, what do these old ruined underground tunnels have to do with anything?”
Darien chuckled slightly, a rare show of emotion to be sure. “Well, I haven’t been entirely honest with you either. You must have suspected as much. I can dress as a hunter, but there is the matter of my speech, my intelligence. Remember how easily I marked you for a city dweller when we first met? Had you been more experienced, you would have done the same to me. Why should a mere hunter journey to this kingdom, and how would someone that claimed to have lived in this kingdom many years not know about the dragon? Did I not say at the very beginning that none come to these mountains but those that have a reason to be there? My reason is to investigate these tunnels and the land beyond. I came here through the passage we investigated before this one. How do you suppose I found it so quickly and so easily? It must have been a stroke of good fortune that the dragon missed my passing. I am not the first to be sent here, and I can guess what happened to those who were less fortunate”
“So who are you really?” Aaron asked
Well, I do come from the east. I am from Altea, to be precise. In Altea, I am called a ranger. It is an ancient order of soldiers who study the bow and the blade. We also learn the ways of wild beasts, and how to hunt and survive in the wilderness. I was not entirely lying when I called myself a hunter, for the word ranger would mean nothing to you, and hunter is the nearest equivalent I could think of.
“So how much of what you said was true, and what was the lie?” Aaron inquired
Well, I was not lying when I said I had no love of the decadance and greed of the ‘civilized’ world. I come from a noble house, but I am the youngest and stand to inherit no land nor title. A military career is expected from a young man in such a position, and the path of the ranger is a noble way to serve for those who prefer the company of trees and animals to their fellow man.
Nor was I lying in anything I said about the dragon. I had not heard of it until you mentioned it. I came to this kingdom because I was sent here on a mission to scout the area and report what I found to the emperor. Fifty years ago, a caravan returned out of the mountains in the northwest of our land, near the Blackwood. They brought stories of a forgotten kingdom beyond the Blackwood and an underground passage that led far under the mountains, allowing the journey to be made in a few weeks. It is likely that one of the travelers was discovered and captured by your sorceror kings, and that was the fugitive that fled to the mountains forty years ago. He was simply trying to get home. A shame he did not succeed, for he might have warned us about the dragon. Since then, many others have tried the passage, but none have returned.
It is only recently that the emperor has become interested in the mysterious land beyond the Blackwood. Why, I do not know. We have always known there were lands beyond the Blackwood, but previous emperors have had no interest in them. Our principal rival is the island nation of Alyssia. Their navy rules the seas. It’s possible that the emperor sees some strategic value in your Amalia, or fears the Alyssians would conquer it first, perhaps using it to gain a foothold on the continent, then using the passage to mount an invasion where we are not prepared to defend against one.
“So our kingdom will become a battleground then? Have I brought ruin down upon us, just as the dragon predicted?” Aaron asked dejectedly
“Maybe, and maybe not. I am no political expert. Many lands have joined Altea peacefully, and yours might. If your kings were to ally with Alyssia, however, it would become.. difficult.” Darien replied
“Maybe they will choose Alyssia? Maybe the dragon already knew that?” Aaron lamented “We know little of Altea beyond the name, but Alyssian ships have long traded in our southern ports.”
“I see” said Darien, “Well, I would put little faith in the words of a dragon. It had every reason to lie to protect its own life and protected position. The dragon mentioned something about sinking ships, did it not? That is almost certain to be a reference to Alyssian ships. No Altean ship would dare sailing so far east, and I know of no other nations whose navy has so long a reach. It may be that your king was simply attempting to preserve his own power, sinking Alyssian ships to deter an invasion from the sea while having the beast guard the passage to prevent an invasion by land.
“But the dragon said it didn’t want to sink anymore ships?” Aaron protested
“If word of a dragon spread throughout the world, adventurers and treasure hunters would surely try to find it. The dragon probably feared discovery, and was beginning to doubt the king’s ability to keep it a secret from other nations. There is much more going on than you understood, I fear. I was not here for years as I said, but I asked many questions of many villagers in the few weeks before I met you. None spoke of the dragon. There is a law that forbids speaking of it, is there not, just as there is a law forbidding anyone to go into the northern mountains?”
“Not a law exactly, but it is considered an ill omen. ‘Speak of the dragon, and he shall appear’ is the saying, and the typical response if anyone asks anything pertaining to it. All who do speak of it are shunned and ignored. All of our books call it the ‘beast of the north’, though I never thought to wonder why.” Aaron reflected
“Yes, that makes sense” Darien said, placing his hands on the ground behind him and leaning back. “I heard that saying many times from those I questioned. At the time, I thought it only a saying. When I heard about the dragon from you, I thought it must be some law, but it runs deeper even than that.”
For the next several minutes, the only sound was the crackling of the fire. Aaron’s mind was awash with confusion. He had thought to feel joy or relief when the dragon was dead. He had thought he might celebrate, and return to his home a hero. He thought of Renard, who thought so highly of him. He could not go back to his adopted father. What could he do, and where could he go? He felt a terrible emptiness inside. All his young life he had been filled with hatred, but that was gone now. In its place was nothing, a terrible void which threatened to consume him whole. For a moment, he thought to cast himself into the ravine, falling upon the very beast he had so eagerly slain a few hours before.
“You look absolutely miserable.” Darien commented, almost sounding amused “Vengeance is not what you imagined it would be, I take it?”
Aaron scowled at his companion. “And what would you know about it? I’ve nowhere to go now and not a friend in the world. I can’t go home. If the king finds out what I’ve done he’ll have me killed, and why shouldn’t he? I may well have brought war and conquest upon my home and people. I may have saved them from the dragon only to deliver them to a worse fate. I have spent ten long years preparing for this, and now that it is done, I feel worse than I did before.”
“I know more about it than you think.” Darien snapped back, his eyes flashing with anger, “and I tried to warn you, did I not? Did I not try to send you home? Did I not say you would be happier forgetting this vengeance? ”
“But I…” Aaron began to protest but trailed off. He knew Darien was correct. Darien had indeed warned him, and tried to get him to stop, but he had persisted. Even the dragon had tried to warn him. Why? Why had he not listened? One thought came suddenly clear into his mind. He remembered once again the terrible moment when his mother had disappeared into the flames. He persisted because her death would always torment him. He persisted because her death was a crime that cried for justice. He persisted because no one else would. He persisted because the thought of doing nothing sickened him. He persisted because he would not accept that men should be at the mercy of dragons and kings, kept alive or killed upon the whim of one or the other. The lives of men and women must count for more than that. Everyone killed is someone’s mother, someone’s father, someone’s son, someone’s brother. They should never be treated as anything less or dismissed as necessary casualties. Life must have value, or nothing does. “I’m sorry, you’re right” Aaron said to Darien.
“There is nothing to forgive.” Darien replied. “Vengeance is an empty thing. It consumes a man, and leaves nothing left once it is gone, but there is more to you than vengeance. I believed that from the beginning, else I would never have helped you. You have a good heart, and you did what you thought was right. When you saw others do less, it nearly drove you near to madness. There is no shame upon a man who does what he sees as right, whether other men see it or not. War may come to your land, but war comes now and again to all the lands of men. It is never the fault of one alone. The king might wish to kill you for your acts may cost him his throne, but it is a poor king who rules only through the power of fear. There are nations where petty kings use their soldiers as Amalia’s king used the dragon. When such a man is killed, his killer is counted a hero and your countrymen would count you no less.”
“I know” Aaron said. “Even now, knowing all that I know now, I could not do otherwise. Nevertheless, I still have the problem of what to do now?”
“Well, perhaps I may assist you in that matter.” Darien remarked “You may count me as one friend in this world, and your fate is not so bleak as you imagine it. I found a path down to the dragon’s carcass. I must give you credit for the beast is well nigh broken in half. A thunderbolt sent from heaven could have scarcely done more. It will be easy enough to bring back proof of the deed. Though you may not be able to go home, you have done Altea a great service, and I have no doubt you would be welcomed there. You are well schooled, and have a talent for both alchemy and magic. There are schools where you may study either or both. If you wished it, I would recommend you be considered for the rangers, though I doubt you would need even my word. None can claim to have slain a dragon in ages. No doubt stories will be written and songs sung of your courage.”
“I would not want that” Aaron said “I did not kill it for all that.”
“I know” Darien replied, “but they will write the stories and sing the songs anyway, because they rightly revere those who have the courage and wits to do what they cannot. You will doubtless have your choice of beautiful maidens to take to the altar or simply to bed as you prefer.” Darien smiled wryly as he spoke and Aaron’s face turned bright red at the suggestion.
“Perhaps I will send some of them to you if you ask nicely enough.” Aaron snapped back. They chuckled together as Aaron tossed another log upon the fire. Then Darien yawned and took his bedroll from his pack. “Tomorrow comes the real test, seeing how much dead dragon we can carry back up here. Rest up” Aaron laughed again, and took his own bedroll from his pack. He laid down his head. It was over. He looked up at the sky and thought of his mother. The pain and emptiness remained, but he had done what he must. Now there was nothing more to be done. That part of his life was now gone, and tomorrow, another would begin.
The wind was cold. It was always cold in the mountains. Aaron was prepared. Prepared for the cold, the wind, the snow, but most of all, he was prepared to face the terror that lay waiting. That was his mission, and purpose. All of his life had been dedicated to it. It was not courage, or resolve, or any thought of glory, but that frightening sense of purpose that now guided his steps and steeled his mind against the fierce north wind that blew continuously in these mountains . The wind would not deter him. Nothing would stop him now. Either the beast will die, or I will. Aaron kept this thought in his mind as he trudged onward. The dragon had taken everything from him. That day had turned his simple life into a terrible nightmare from which he could not awaken.