Morg’s three hearts quickened at the sight of the manling. There was nothing like the sparkle of a soldier carapace to snap him out of a pre-long-sleep melancholy. With excitement swelling in his breast, he swooped in for a closer look.
Manling shells were a wonder of nature. No two were ever alike. They came in a variety of colors: pewter, coal, eggshell, silver and gold. Some were dull and plain as pillbugs while others were crystal-bright and etched with intricate patterns. Their mandibles came in both smooth and beaky varieties, and their craniums often boasted feathers, horns or even antlers. The most exquisite ones bore distinctive markings on their breast that resembled some animal or object in nature.
What Morg saw this time was so remarkable he almost forgot to beat his wings. Not only was the shell unusually large and a burnished gold in color—the rarest sort—but the distinctive markings on its breast and club-arm bore an unmistakable resemblance to his own shadow. He couldn’t believe his good fortune. This shell would find a very special place in his collection.
He pulled up at the last moment, passing so close to the manling that he could peer through the horizontal eye-slits to the dark cores beneath, which were black and mindless as an insect’s. He banked and completed a circuit to land a few wingspans in front of it. Suppressing his excitement, he forced himself to concentrate on the task at hand.
Killing a soldier manling without damaging its shell was like trying to subdue a walking, stinging egg. The slightest blow from tail or talon was sure to damage them. Blazing the beast wasn’t an option. Not only was it morally reprehensible to flame another living creature, but dragon-fire left permanent scorch marks. Morg sized up his prey as he mentally reviewed his tactics.
The manling broke the standoff first. With a defiant bark, it flailed its legs against the carrier beast, causing it to lurch forward. He had to admire the creature’s boldness, if not its common sense. Even the witless caribou would flee at first sight of a dragon, but a soldier manling had no qualms about taking on something twenty times its size.
Launching himself into the air, Morg swept up and over it, coming down on the other side. He repeated the maneuver several times as the manling wheeled and charged, barking and clanking all the while. It tried all the usual tricks: applying sudden bursts of speed, inching closer while attempting to look harmless and disinterested, trying to anticipate his next move and race there ahead of him, or attempting to circle around and catch him from behind. Morg had seen it all before. He even allowed it to come close a few times so it wouldn’t become discouraged and run for the woods, though he made a point of never letting it out of his sight. If there was one thing the Great Serpent had overlooked in a dragon’s design, it was a means of removing a stinger from its back.
The carrier beast was the first to show signs of tiring. Its nostrils flared with every labored breath, and a heavy lather poured from its mouth. For all the manling’s insistent kicking, each successive charge was slower and more ponderous than the last. Soon, it could barely manage more than a shambling walk.
The time had come, Morg judged, to set about the delicate business of killing. Arching his wings high over his back for balance, he prodded at his quarry with his fore claws while his tail snaked around to menace it from behind. The manling lashed out wildly with club-arm and stinger but lacking opposable eyes and an adequate number of appendages, it was at a severe disadvantage.
Claws poised to snatch the manling the instant it went limp, Morg’s tail flicked in for the death strike, aiming for the soft spot at the back of the neck. His aim held true, but the carrier beast surged suddenly forward, causing the point of his tail to pierce the beast’s flank instead. With a terrible squeal, it fell thrashing to the ground in a gout of blood. The manling was thrown clear, coming to rest face-down in the dirt. Silent and unmoving, its detached stinger and club-arm lay on the ground some distance away.
Rot and rust! Morg swore. He should have been more careful. He gave the prone form a nudge. When it didn’t stir, he hooked two claws underneath it and rolled it over onto its back. With relief he saw that it had not sustained any permanent damage. Clods of earth had gotten wedged into some of the joints, and there was a long grass smudge along one side, but nothing a hot soak wouldn’t take out. On its breast, the white outline of the dragon stood out in sharp relief. Remarkable.
Behind the narrow eye slits came a sudden flash of white. Then the dark pupils rolled into view. Cold and impassive, they gazed unflinchingly back at him. Too late Morg realized his danger. The manling wasn’t dead, only stunned. In his preoccupation, he had placed his most vulnerable region, the upper tip of the snout between the nares, within its reach. Supple as green wood, the scales there were particularly sensitive to touch, a feature that was put to good use during mating season when coupling dragons nuzzled them together to stimulate each other to ecstasy. While a single blow might not cause lasting harm, it could induce momentary disorientation or even blackout, leaving him at an assailant’s mercy.
The manling’s arm whipped around, releasing a small brown object it had been clutching unseen in a grabber. Morg reared, but he was too late. The object exploded on impact with a cushioned splat, dispersing in a cloud of red dust. Taking advantage of the distraction, the manling jumped to its feet. In place of a stinger, it now clutched a wooden contraption for projecting quills. This was an unexpected turn of events. It was rare for a soldier to possess both a stinger and quills. Then again, this manling was proving to be a most extraordinary specimen.
Before Morg could regroup, a powerful sneeze sent his head recoiling along its long neck. His vision filled with vertiginous bats, and his nasal passages burned with a strange, heat-less fire. Dimly, he realized it must have something to do with the mysterious red powder. Perhaps it was some manner of poison. Whatever it was, he was powerless against its effects. Again and again he sneezed, spraying out arcs of greenish-black mucus. He felt a sharp prick in the roof of his mouth and realized he had been shot with a quill. Another quill bounced harmlessly off a tooth.
Little by little, the effects of the powder began to wear off. His sneezes fizzled out, and his vision cleared. He probed the lump in the roof of his mouth with his tongue, tasting the salty tang of blood. The quill had already fallen out, having only struck the bony front plate of his upper jaw rather than the softer flesh further back. The throbbing reminded him that there was still a dangerous manling on the loose.
When he caught sight of the manling again, he thought it must have gone berserk. It was running around in crazed circles, clawing wildly at its head. After a short while it collapsed, twitching and jittering like a beetle on its back. With one final, violent spasm, it went still.
Morg took no chances this time, keeping his head at a safe distance as he prodded at the motionless body. He was about to flip it over and spear it in the back when he saw there was no need. A greasy glob of mucus had splattered across the eye slit, dribbling through to the soft flesh beneath. Yellow tendrils of smoke issued forth accompanied by a faint, sizzling sound. It must have been horribly painful, Morg thought, feeling a grudging respect for the beast that had managed such a rousing, albeit doomed, defense.
You need never suffer again, he told it reassuringly. From now on, you will be immortal.
* * * * *
The shell of a manling required attentive cleansing and preparation. If any of the slug-like flesh was left inside to rot, it would raise a terrible stink and permanently contaminate the shell. Boiling was the best method of purification. Not only did it serve to cook and soften the flesh, but it cleansed the shell of impurities such as dirt, grime and, in this case, dragon-snot.
It took some time to find a suitable body of water, one large enough to submerge a manling but small enough to sustain a steady boil. He finally located a pond that was just the right size, the late summer remnant of a meltwater lake. The water was a bit murky, but a good boil would fix that.
After lowering the manling into the pool, he set about collecting boulders from the nearby slopes and piling them into a mound on the bank. It was dark by the time he finished, but dragons did not tire as common beasts did and Morg’s work was only beginning.
He fired the mound of boulders until they pulsed red hot. Then, using the tips of his claws as pincers, he picked them up and cast them into the pond. The water hissed and steamed with each fresh addition. The stench of burned moss and fish was overpowering so he tossed in some pine boughs to freshen it up. Slowly at first, then with increasing frequency, great bubbles broke the surface like breaching turtles. With the pond boiling away, he settled into a regular rhythm of heating and heaving. All unnoticed, the moon drifted across the sky.
As dawn was breaking, a poke to the bottom of the manling’s foot convinced him that it was well and thoroughly cooked.
Morg fished out the carcass and carried it back to his feasting-rock by his mountain lair. He pulled off the appendages first, scraping out the meat and running his tongue along the inside of the shell to lick out any last bits. Boiled manling was a rare treat, and this one was larger and juicier than most. Without the flesh to bind it together, the shell came apart in multiple segments which he arranged on the stone shelf. He saved the head for last, prying open the mandible, slurping out the brains, and discarding the egg-shaped skull into the bone pit. Altogether, it made for a hearty snack.