“Is being many sun-moons ago,” Moribus began. “Third is long searching to find treasure-home of Little Red Dragon in earth-teeth beyond great waters. Many tree-herds, many grass-lakes, many water-snakes is Third crossing. Betides, Third is finding Little Red Dragon at last and learning secrets of dragon-ways.”
Morg was revolted. How could any dragon debase himself so low as to instruct a manling in the ways of their kind? Such a dragon would instantly become hreek-slin, a stench in the nares of the Great Serpent. “Wherefore is Little Red Dragon showing Thrrdh such things? Wherefore is not killing?”
“Third is making Little Red Dragon much cloud-happy by showing where treasure-things are found. Little Red Dragon is keeping Third close as scales on head. Third is much listening, is much learning. Soon Third is speaking in manner of dragons and making secret treasure-home. One sun-moon, Third is telling Little Red Dragon that no more treasure-things can be—what is word?—harvested. Little Red Dragon is growing much angry and is wont to kill us.”
“But Thrrdh yet livest,” Morg noted.
“Third is killing Little Red Dragon first.”
Morg snorted in disbelief. Though it wasn’t inconceivable that a full-grown manling soldier could mortally wound a hapless young dragon, this manling, for all its talk of mind-danger, hardly appeared capable of harming a bat. “Surely, Thrrdh utterest shadow-lie.”
“Third is killing,” Moribus repeated.
“Thou wilt tell Mrrgkhtchkllk how Thrrdh is killing Little Red Dragon.”
“Is difficult for telling. Is simple for showing.”
“Then thou wilt show us.”
“Third is being much honored to show Great Dragon way of killing,” Moribus said. “Firstly, Third is sneaking into treasure-home of Little Red Dragon where we are having many places for hiding. Then Third is making big smell.” Moribus squeezed out a generous handful of guano and slung it in the dragon’s direction.
Morg leaped back as a whitish glob splatted dangerously close. “Thou art stopping now!” he roared.
“We are being very much sorry,” Moribus said. “Third is but showing Great Dragon how we are killing Little Red Dragon. Little Red Dragon is having much good smell-sense. Must not be allowed to smell Third.”
“Mrrgkhtchkllk has heard enough! We wilt slay thee now!” He advanced on the impetuous manling.
“But Third is not finished telling story.” Moribus reached into a pocket of his cloak for a handful of fire-blossoms. In one smooth motion, he seated them into the leather cradle of his slingshot and sent them arcing high into the air. Wherever they struck a stalactite or the ground, they exploded in chrysanthemum-colored flashes. “Little Red Dragon is having much good eye-sense. Must not be allowed to see Third.”
The flashes wreaked havoc on Morg’s night vision, filling it with blue after-images. A herd of oliphaunts could have stampeded under his snout and he wouldn’t have seen a thing. I can still hear you, he thought, moving in the direction of the manling’s voice. But the hermit was prepared for this also. Morg had barely taken two strides when a shrill noise rang out, high as the hunting call of an eagle in the eyries, brittle as the creaking of glaciers in the spring. The pain in his ears was exquisite. Just as suddenly as it had begun, the shrieking stopped.
“Little Red Dragon is having much good ear-sense,” the manling’s voice sounded out from a different spot. “Must not be allowed to hear Third. Whenever Little Red Dragon is drawing near, we are making big noise and running away.”
Just as Morg’s head was beginning to clear, the manling let loose with a fresh barrage of explosions, stinks and shrieks. Robbed of his senses, he could only rampage blindly in the hope of catching his adversary in the onslaught. He whipped and scythed his way across the chamber, spraying coins and gemstones in all directions. By the time he stopped, his breast heaving from exertion, the floor was covered in a lumpy blanket of treasure that crunched underfoot. Damn that creature! A whole sun cycle’s worth of cleaning and organizing had just been undone in a moment’s fury. If only he could have caught it alive. He would have enjoyed hearing it sing as he pulled it apart limb from limb.
A promising silence descended and the crisis seemed to have passed. But then the manling’s voice sounded out from the other side of the chamber.
“Little Red Dragon is much looking for but is not finding Third. Third is being much quick, much sneaky.” To prove its point, it set off more blinding explosions.
It took all of Morg’s self-control not to rise to the bait. More random attacks would only sap his strength. He needed to think and reason this out. There must be some weakness he could exploit. The hermit was dastardly clever, but it was only a manling after all, a despicable spawn of the Worm. Sooner or later, it was bound to make a mistake. It was only a matter of time—Time! Of course, that was the answer. The life of a manling was quick and fleeting, meted out in only a few short seasons, while dragons were ancient as the mountains. Deprived of water and sustenance, the manling would quickly perish. All Morg had to do was prevent it from escaping.
Feeling his way, Morg edged along the chamber’s circumference until he recognized the smooth, oblate opening of the tunnel leading to the outside world, the only means in and out of his lair. Curling up in the mouth of the passage, he called into the swirling darkness, “Where hidest thou, Thrrdh?”
“Third is not hiding,” came the reply, closer than expected. “But still Great Dragon is not seeing us.”
Patience, Morg reminded himself. It was not necessary to outwit the manling, only to outwait it. “Though thou art clever as the fox, there be but one path out of our treasure-home, and we standest guard for thee there. Never again wilt thou feel wind-breath upon thy head. Never again wilt sun-fire warm thy blood. Soon, thou wilt perish, and we wilt devour thy flesh and crunch thy bones as we have devoured the flesh and crunched the bones of thine brethren. Thou canst not prevail against the mighty Mrrgkhtchkllk.”
“When Third is done killing Great Dragon, he is being much cloud-happy to die.” Moribus wiped blood from his face where it had been slashed by flying jewels. Only his thick cloak had kept him from being lacerated to pieces.
“How slayest thou when thou hast neither stinger nor quills?”
“Third is having.” Moribus unslung the double-channeled crossbow and released a single bolt at the dragon’s breast. It ricocheted harmlessly off the plated scales.
Morg snorted in amusement. “We fearest not thine quills. Mayhaps Little Red Dragon is not being long from the shell and is having scales soft as tree-skin, but with Mrrgkhtchkllk it is not so. Everywhere, scales of Mrrgkhtchkllk are hard as earth-skin. Stingers breakest it not. Quills piercest it not.”
“There is one place where skin of Great Dragon is not being hard as earth-skin,” Moribus said.
A small object landed in Morg’s mouth. When he tried to eject it, it squished apart, releasing a fine powder that dissolved on contact. A scorching sensation engulfed his tongue and began to spread along his lower palate.
“Mouth-roof of Great Dragon is being very much soft,” came the manling’s blubbery voice. “Above it is being mind-center. Easy to prick mind-center. Then Great Dragon will be forever sleeping inside mountain-heart. But maybe Third is not killing Great Dragon so much fast. Maybe Third is pricking fire-heart instead. Great Dragon is growing much cold and hungry. No can make warm. No can eat. Many sun-moons is Great Dragon suffering.”
Morg snapped his jaws shut, denying the manling its target.
“For how long is Great Dragon closing mouth, Third is wondering. Great Dragon is not liking taste of fire pepper.”
The manling could not have spoken truer words. Morg’s gums and the soft lining of his mouth felt as if they were being eaten away by acid. Swallowing only aggravated his condition by spreading the burning down his throat. He couldn’t stop salivating, and the more he salivated the more the burning intensified. Magma-hot mucus backed up into his throat, causing him to gag and choke. With one nare still plugged and the other oozing profusely, he was finding it difficult to breathe. The flesh-eating fire was merciless and unrelenting, the desire for relief all-consuming. Unable to bear it any longer, he threw open his jaws to drink of the precious air.
The squeal of tension that preceded the firing of a manling quill sent a cold tingle crawling under Morg’s scales. It was a feeling he had only experienced twice before, the first time when he had locked claws with a larger clutchmate and the second time when he had gone claw to claw with his own sire. It was the cold, metallic touch of fear.
* * * * *
As Moribus stared into the dragon’s widening maw, he had a fleeting image of the late Lord Manerion. He had spotted the knight’s suit of armor at the back of the chamber among several dozen others, neatly laid out as if waiting for their owners to return. Fifty odd years had passed since that fateful day he had watched his master’s limp body being carried away above the treetops. Though he had shed no tears for the knight, with the passing of Lord Manerion had gone all his brightest hopes and happiest futures.
What purpose now remained to this quest? There would be no aristocrat’s bounty or maiden’s hand in marriage, no bedtime ballads to send children off to sleep with visions of glory. Only dragon bones and moldering riches, forever entombed in this mountain. He recalled the tale of Argosy the mariner who, having crossed the Sea of Time to reach the edge of the world, found that, instead of paradise, only the gray fog of oblivion awaited him.
Far back in the dragon’s throat, the flame gland hung like a giant tonsil, sheathed in flame and pulsing erratically. For all his threats, Moribus would never have considered shooting the flame gland. No creature should be made to suffer like that. Death should be quick and painless; dying in one’s sleep was best. With his remaining bolt, he took aim at the fleshy bulge where the hardened upper shelf of the jaw gave way to the silk-smooth tissue of the throat. Just behind that was the brain. A single shot would do the trick. The dragon wouldn’t feel a thing.
As he sighted along the crossbow’s shaft, Moribus was surprised to see that his hand was shaking. He steeled himself, tensing his finger on the latch. Go on, old man. What are you waiting for?