Hunting the flame

Logan Noble

In the distant rumblings of the mountains, Zane knew giants roamed. The fire crackled next to him. Zane stared at it, watching the flames dance and weave, suddenly feeling very small. The night around him wore on and, deep inside, at his dim core, Zane felt like he might not survive it. He inched closer to the fire, staring at its center, watching the thatches of weeds and dead wood burn. He had ventured out here, in the vast wilderness, to do something he would have never done, not even as a young man.

He was here to slay a dragon.

It had not been an easy choice, but, then again, it wasn’t really a choice at all. Zane held out his hands to the fire, letting the shimmering heat warm his hands, his hands that were wrinkled and very dark. He was a black man, and the cold, bitter men of these lands hated him for it. Zane wasn’t a fool. In the land he reigned from, he had been given proper schooling, and, afterward, as a young man, had served in the Imperial service, spending his life under the King’s hand, first as a warrior, carving his way across a smoky battlefield, then as the King’s personal bodyguard. He had trained long and hard in the art of battle, the discipline of the sword, and his deadly knowledge has served him well. Too well.

Zane scoffed, and the sound was loud. He looked down to see his hand on the hilt of his sword. He hadn’t even realized he had put it there. Zane ran his fingers down the leather wrapped handle, imagining the sweat and the blood ingrained into it, an invisible stain of deeds from his past. This region was new to him, the cities loud and busy, the women lurid, and the men vulgar and boisterous. It hadn’t taken these men long, men with loud mouths and long beards, to notice his skin color and think of it as a weakness. They had begun calling him names as he’d walked down the dirty streets. They began to get bolder, and it didn’t take long for one of them, a big oaf, to try and get physical. The others soon followed, closing around him, teeth as yellow as a harvest moon.

Zane had seen a flash of silver, a dagger, and then someone had struck him with a ham sized fist, a meandering blow that connected without purpose to his shoulder. He’d drawn his sword then, more from instinct and habit than real fear, and they took the chance to swarm, smelling the blood that was soon to spill. It was an accident really, the man tripped, or perhaps he was shoved, but in the end, it really didn’t matter. His sword, adjourned with his lands foreign crest and hammered from ancient steel deep within dark and derelict mines, cut through ribs and flesh, and the man was dead.

The fighting had stopped, and he was arrested, to be hung on the next dawn. They hadn’t listened to his story. The men said he was a murderer, and that they were innocents. Zane sat in a cell that night, prisoners’ jeers drifting through the bars like bad musical notes, and for the first time since he was a child, he felt very alone.

But, not soon after, he was visited by none other than the General of the lands who offered him a deal. Kill the dragon that has been destroying their lands, or have his neck broken upon the gallows. They had selected him for his skill with a blade, something people from his land were known for. He had two days to ride to its cave, and he would be greeted there by a soldier. If he didn’t show up on the second night, they planned to hunt him to the edge of the earth, and he would spend the rest of his short life dreaming of the execution to come. But, if he succeeded in slaying the dragon, the soldier he was to meet would have the papers to set him free. No dead dragon, no freedom.

The fire cracked and Zane chuckled. He felt like a rodent stuck in a trap. Death awaited him no matter what he did. He was skilled with a blade, but he’d heard tales of dragons, hides like iron, teeth as sharp as daggers. They had the ability to breathe fire, fire that would roast men alive in the very armor they’d worn to protect themselves. They couldn’t be reasoned with, bartered with, or cajoled. They were killers that charred the lands and swallowed livestock whole. He knew men that had battled dragons, and had lived to tell the tale. They were old men with broken limbs that would never heal. They had burns that stretched like continents on their pale flesh.

Zane once again looked to the sky, imagining the heavy sound of wings coming down on him. The thought frightened him. He turned and began to roll out his bedroll. Enough thoughts. The fact was, given a choice between life and death, he’d chosen life. But for how long? With constellations wheeling overhead, Zane fell into an uneasy sleep.

The morning came with a dazzling sun peeking over the mountains, frosty and sparkling as the sun cast its gaze over them. The birds sang overhead, singing songs of new beginnings, and Zane opened his eyes to view the dizzying heights of a pine tree, knotted and budding from the new spring. He sat up, his back cracking audibly. Zane looked around, his eyes resting on the burnt refuge of the fire, then scanning over the bushes and branches around him, grass poking up through bits of cracked mountain rock. He’d camped out on the trail leading into the mountains, knowing that the final trek to the dragon’s cave, and his fate, was only a few hours’ hike.

Zane stood up and began to gather his things, his joints aching and muscles groaning from the rocky place he’d spent the night. Well, at least it isn’t your death bed, he thought. The day was warm and pleasant, and when Zane stuffed his items into his knapsack, he wondered what the dragon would be doing when he reached his cave. Perhaps it would be in hibernation, deep in a primordial slumber, and stabbing his blade deep into its eyeball would be easy. Or,maybe it would be waiting, jaw agape, ready to swallow him whole.

Zane shivered at the thought as he began to climb the path up the mountain, the sun beating down on him heavily. A rabbit hopped into his path, nose twitching before catching sight of him, taking off back into where it had come. Zane chewed on a piece of jerky as he walked, the only thing he’d been able to purchase before the trouble started. It was extremely salty, but it tasted great. It was perhaps the only good thing to come out of that city.

The path began to incline steeply, and, on a faint draft of wind, Zane smelled smoke. It was a scent that reminded him of battles once fought, of lands conquered. The land gave a sudden severe jump in steepness, and Zane came across the first stone plateau. He stopped for a moment, examining a campfire that had been left. The sticks they’d used had been thin and dead. The fire had burnt quickly and fiercely. The scent of smoke he had smelled earlier hung thicker here, and Zane thought he could detect the smell of singed meat. He walked further ahead, suddenly stopping as his eyes fell upon a set of sparse bushes. Laying in the dirt was two human legs, ripped from the waist, the flesh burnt and red, dried blood clinging to the bushes hungrily.

Bile rose in Zane’s throat as he looked at the thing before him. Somehow he knew this was the soldier he was meant to meet. He stepped over the severed legs gingerly, and surveyed the remains of the camp. The fire was still smoking, and Zane counted two sleeping rolls, unfurled and wrinkled. Several random items lay around, and Zane took the time to grab a dagger and slide it into his belt. The severed legs accounted for one of his soldiers, but where was the other? He looked up toward the mountain trail, and several hundred feet north, was a jagged cliff. The dragon’s den would be there.

A thought struck him then, and it stopped Zane dead in his tracks. With both soldiers dead, what was stopping him from leaving? By the time the General and his men realized what was happening, Zane would be long gone, the fears of a hungry dragon long gone. He imagined finding an inn, eating roasted mutton and drinking bitter ale. It all seemed so perfect. Perfect. It also wasn’t realistic. He could never rest. Not fully. He’d spend the rest of his days, sleeping with one eye open. Sleeping during the day, traveling at night. He’d cross a country border where, a new team of soldiers could haunt him anew. It would end with him on the gallows.

Zane turned his gaze back to the cliff. He would look. If the dragon was quiet, the air still, he would enter the cave. If not…

He began to climb.

By the time he reached the tallest cliff, he was winded. The air seemed thinner, the trees tiny and narrow. Before him, rising from the crag, the cave mouth stood. The morning sunshine, so bright, didn’t reach into the inky darkness within. The air should be clean. Instead, it stunk of sulfur.

Standing on the cliff, Zane gave a quick prayer. He prayed to gods that he’d never known. Gods he’d never thought of. He prayed to the gods of his mother, winged angels of celestial planes. He prayed to the gods of his father, great serpents and squids that lived in the bottomless depths of an ocean and a universe that cared little for the whims of men. All around him, the air was still. Dead silent.

He’d made himself a deal. A bad one, but he’d spent his life trying to be a good man, one that would never compromise his ideals in selfishness. He’d made a deal to slay a dragon. And slay a dragon he would. Zane entered the cave.

After a moment, his eyes adjusted. Beneath him, the cave floor was soft sand. Every couple of steps, his feet would crush something brittle. Bones. Bones of the men that have come before. All the while, Zane listened. The cave had to be massive. How far does it go into the earth? The thought was terrifying. He would keep—

The darkness before him stirred. A sense of smallness flooded his veins with ice. So very quiet. Zane smelled sulfur and copper, blood and tears. Two eyes, wet and black, blinked to life. The dragon. The creature woke slowly, the small sunshine behind him only giving him an inkling of the great beast’s enormity. Black scales. A neck that moved higher, higher to the glistening cave ceiling. Zane drew his sword, moving his feet into a stance that he’d learned since childhood. Run. Run. Run. The dragon took a great breath, the intake of air filling his ears just as a rapid build-up of heat filled the air. Zane rolled.

The flame rose high and bright, at once giving Zane a view of everything. The creature. From head to tail. Spikes protruding from black scales. A lashing tail. Wings folded beside a plump body. The dragon filled the enormous cave. The breath super-heated the air, leaving Zane gasped for oxygen, his exposed skin burning.

The dragon closed its maw, the barrage gone. All around him, the cave smoldered. The great serpent slithered, its enormous clawed feet kicking dirt as it moved to find him. Zane kept moving. He skirted the cave wall, heading for its tail. The dragon hissed, the tree trunk shape of its appendage twitching in wide swings. Cut quickly and move. If its head reaches you, you die. Zane sprinted forward, swinging his sword in a series of fast cuts. Iron met scales.

The dragon roared and its head shot forward. As it did, Zane climbed quickly, using the wall to leap over its tail, landing on the hot sand behind it. Cut. Move. Zane sliced. Slice. Roll. Zane cut. The dragon’s blood was hot. It splashed everything, coating Zane’s burning skin. He kept at his deadly dance. His muscles already ached. His adrenaline pumped. Zane’s world smelled of burning. Burning flesh. Burning air. He—

He was struck suddenly, hard, sending him soaring into the cave wall. Zane’s world flashed and spun, the pain from the blow rolling up from his numbing legs, greeting the agony the glistening stone had given him. For what seemed like an eternity, Zane lay in the sand, dazed. In his shaky vision, the dragon rose. Must…must… Zane squeezed his sword hilt. The leather. So familiar. He could feel himself drifting. Must… get… The air was heating up again. Another flame breath was coming. He’d be burnt alive, his corpse sizzled upon the black cave wall. Zane went to his knees. Then to a shaky crouch. Legs. Must be broken. The dragon had the breath of a god. It sucked the cave dry as it inhaled. Zane roared. He threw everything, every ounce of energy toward his legs. He was up. Running. Sword pointed outward. His sword sunk hilt deep in the creature’s chest as its flame pounded into the rock behind him.

The fire roasted Zane’s back. He could feel his clothes cook from his back. He pressed harder into the sword, pressing it further and further, black blood soaking him. Zane screamed.

The dragon could do nothing. Its jaws snapped at empty air behind him, its neck not long enough to catch him. It thrashed around, dragging Zane as he hung from the blade. The cave shook with the force. The dragon slumped over, its breath coming out in weak hisses.

Zane tumbled to the dirt, his body weak. He shivered. But, yet, he pulled himself to his feet. Out came the dagger of the dead soldiers. He limped to the creature, who eyed him. Its black eyes rolled with hate. It seemed weak. Finish it. The creature attempted to lift its neck and Zane moved as fast as he could, sinking the dagger into the dragon’s scaled throat. He sawed downward as the dragon moved against him, even in weakness, beyond strong. As his dagger ripped through scales, life drained from the dragon’s black eyes. It went still.

The dragon was dead.

Zane leaned against the cave wall, exhaustion creeping in. Every muscle. Every limb. Dull and numb. His legs howled with pain. His skin ached. You killed it. And survived. He turned his gaze to the fallen shape of the dragon. The sense of disbelief filled him. As Zane began to limp toward the exit, he spotted something. He moved slowly, stepping gingerly over the dragon tail. Zane couldn’t believe his eyes.

Among great swaths of cloth, arranged gingerly inside a nest, sat three dragon eggs.

He moved to them, a sense of dread creeping into his chest. A town living in fear of a fire breathing monster. And all along…

The eggs were a dull green, speckled with dazzling colors. Zane crouched, painfully, and picked one up. It fit snugly in his two hands, heavy and light all at once. He’d been to exotic markets all across the lands. Served beside a king that collected the strange and bizarre to decorate his palace. And, in that time, he’d never seen a dragon egg. The money this will collect.

Zane looked to the other two eggs. He stood slowly, grimacing. He lifted one boot. Zane stomped until nothing but yolk remained.

He limped to the exit, the cave entrance birthing him back into the sunlight. Zane grabbed his bag as he walked, the third egg vanishing inside. Below him, one ledge down, a legion of soldiers awaited him. The General, the one that had given him his cruel task, stood at the lead of his band, looking stunned.

“By the Gods!” The General said. Beside him, his men looked at Zane in awe. “You’ve slain the dragon! No one would—

“Care. Food, money, and care. And I’ll be on my way.” Though his body was weak, his voice felt strong.

The General nodded. “You can ride the wagon into town. The King will provide you with this and more. Anything else before we leave?”

Zane turned his head back toward the cave. The darkness seemed complete. He’d entered in, a man with nothing, a man that had only death to look forward to. Though he was worse for the wear, in his bag, he had an item that would make him a very powerful man.

He met the General’s eyes. Zane thought of the angry eyes of the men in the town, judging him for the color of the skin, for the place of his birth. Zane thought of the dirty work he’d been forced to commit, the battle he’d just fought. His heart swelled with rage.

“General?”

The man, aside his horse, raised a thick eyebrow. “Yes?”

“Fetch my sword.”

Logan Noble is a horror and science fiction writer who lives in Ohio with his wife and his two dogs. His short stories have appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines, including Pickman’s Gallery, Miskatonic Dreams, Déraciné Magazine, and Sanitarium Magazine. He is the writer of the horror slasher screenplay Hunter.

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