Balancing the Scales

The unforgiving stench of brimstone infused his surroundings; stealing breath and courage. This is where his quarry lived – but when hunting dragons, it often the hunter who becomes the prey. A dangerous job – but someone had to do it; step in when a beast such as a dragon chose to terrorize the small, two-legged species that crawled upon the earth.

Humanity; rejecting the claim of the dragons being the Lords of the World, would make them accountable for their crimes.

“I sense you, manling. I can taste your fear.”

A dragon’s perceptions were honed to a razor’s edge over millennia, better for finding hapless treasure seekers hoping to plunder their hoard. The dragon spoke in a whisper, yet the echoes almost deafened him within the cave network. Bouncing around within so he couldn’t pinpoint the creature’s exact location. The lair had been excavated to allow the dragon, not the human, free run. Each passage was dragon-sized, conveniently lacking cover for anything of smaller stature, no handy alcoves to shield the hero from the wrath of dragonfire, no little holes to squeeze through where the dragon could not follow.

No simple romp as described in the fairy tales, the cunning reptile knew that the earth-dwellers would seek it out at rest upon the ground. The broad entrance led to a maze of caverns that their master knew far better than any intruder – one wrong turn and the trap would slam shut.

“Manling, come closer. Do you not wish to brave the dragon and steal its treasure? My hoard is vast; but you must show courage before you walk away with my gold.”

First mistake, last mistake for most heroes. Stride boldly into the cave with sword upraised, and instantly cooked by flame moments later. The beast was far stronger, faster and fiercer than he; what he had was guile and wit against the dragon’s overweening pride. A fatal flaw which he’d taken advantage of more than once.

He walked out slowly, quite aware that the dragon was watching him. He had to seemingly take the bait and lead the dragon into his own trap. It was trying to be quiet, but he could hear the faint intake of air. The old fire-breather was predictable, unleashing a gout of flame towards him. Shield held up in front to take the brunt of the dragonfire, letting the spillover splash against his cured leather armour. He pushed onward blindly, right into the inferno jet. The flames stopped. He could divine the dragon’s thoughts: I blasted the little thing with my flames and it did not burn. But nothing can resist the heat of dragonfire.

Except the hide of another dragon.

His shield, formed of the larger back scales from a dragon, his armour the treated skin of a dragon. In his gear he was immune to its most fearsome weapon.

“It seems we have a tricky manling; a clever mouse has crept into Ereshkigal’s house.” The creature was intrigued; it had probably been rather bored. This was a little more of a challenge to its great power.

It had all the advantages – if it had the opportunity to use them. But he didn’t plan for this to happen. He took the initiative, kept the dragon on a reactive stance rather than an active one. While the creature was still musing over this “mouse”, said rodent took the chance to make a short, sharp bite. The dragon hadn’t moved since it had tried to toast him, so in the dim lava-lit confines of the cavern, his dragon-fang spear struck home, sinking deeply in the beast’s haunch.

Great dollops of blood welled from the wound, hissing madly as they hit the ground. He danced away from them as he fled the dragon’s counterstrike, staying well away from those snatching talons and terrible jaws.

“The mouse has TEETH, I see! Not that it will save you, little, foolish manling.”

“Do I have your full attention, Ereshkigal?” His voice sounded so small against the dragon’s conversational rumble.

Getting a dragon’s ire was the best way of getting its attention. Most times this attention contained a great deal of violent activity and was extremely short. You quit thinking about your food after it’s chewed up and swallowed.

“You have my attention, little mouse. Speak your last words and I will listen.” The beast’s tone was low and poisonous; the strike must be aching now, he could still hear the sound of the rich, thick blood landing on the cavern’s floor.

“Ereshkigal, you are charged with the destruction of the village of Clearbrook; killing no less than fifty seven villagers, all their livestock and then razing that village to the ground with flame. How do you plead?”

“PLEAD? I do not ‘plead.’ I am a dragon; I am not beholden to the laws of petty humans. Go bother a more foolish creature with your pointless rhetoric.”

He didn’t let the wyrm’s mocking, dismissive tone sway him from his duty. “Your choices are these. You may suffer the requisite punishment or pay the werguild to the victims’ families from your hoard-”

Ereshkigal interrupted him. “Oho! It all becomes clear, now. This is the first time a human has tried to extort me out of my treasure. A lawyer AND a thief; the mouse that creeps into my lair.”

Taking control of the conversation, he declared to this arrogant reptile: “I am no lawyer or thief – I assure you, I am hoping you refuse to pay the werguild and that you pay for your crimes with your life. You show no remorse for your actions – human life means nothing to you; and I know nothing would stop you from destroying another village.”

“And why should I not, little mouse, ignorant manling? Dragons rule the world – humans are mere toys to us, they do not know their proper place in the natural order.”

“Perhaps the natural order has changed, Ereshkigal. The time of dragons has passed – it is the era of humanity. As dragons have basked in the tranquillity of a thousand years passing, the humans have ascended beyond their beginnings.”

The beast narrowed its flame-hued eyes at this insignificant speck. “I’ve heard this before amongst my kin – I know of you, _krushikar.”_ The dragon spat the last word as if it were a curse, and indeed it was in its own language.

Krushikar. He’d not been called that for a long time. It brought back memories of when he’d started his path. Tortured memories, memories of blood and pain and crushing remorse.

“Your existence is an affront to me and my people, krushikar. Your death will bring my kin and me great satisfaction.”

“And so it begins, Ereshkigal.” He had to keep his poise, ready for whatever the dragon did next and react in a fashion that gave him the advantage.

Knowing that he was proof against the unquenchable fires within its gargantuan belly, the beast snapped its head forward to engulf his tiny body in a forest of fangs. He knew firsthand the sharpness of those teeth, the ferocity of such a lunge. His own dragon-tooth spear had pierced the seeming invulnerable hide of many of the creatures. Impaled by just one would be slowly and painfully fatal; several would be quick, gruesome and messy. The dragon was fast, but being only a small target and hardly slow himself, he concentrated on his miniscule form not as a weakness but as a strength.

Before it had a chance to snap at him again, he took the opportunity to leap upon the barbed tip of the dragon’s tail. Carefully avoiding the spikes, he raced quickly halfway up the creature’s back. It took the great beast some time to determine what that tingling sensation was that was shooting up its spine. He could imagine the dragon’s complacence – true enough, its neck wasn’t quite sinuous enough for its bite to reach him, but neither could he pierce the impenetrable scales of its back. Not even the raw fury of another dragon could break through that bulwark.

So, it seemed that they were at an impasse. But he knew its next move. Dragons didn’t need ingenuity – they had their power. It was that weak, seemingly defenceless naked creature named human that had only the thin shield of intelligence versus nature’s wrath. The spear-tooth, the dragon-hide armour, the scale shield – they were just tools. He was the true weapon.

And he was going in for the kill.

The massive wyrm leapt into the air, an unexpected surprise to toss this unwanted rider to the ground. The widespread wings creating a sulphurous windstorm within the passage, the very movement of tremendous spans enough to almost dislodge him from his precarious perch. But he held onto the beast’s flanks for grim death; knowing if he lost his grip that fate would await him, stunned briefly by the fall long enough for the monster to gobble him up whole. Although he could probably hold here until his strength gave out, the dragon would not tire as quickly. The battle would turn into an endurance trial – a contest where the odds would favour the colossal wyrm.

So, amidst the thundering beats of those leathery wings he endeavoured to slowly move up the dragon’s back. Occasional missteps having him scrabbling for purchase on those iron-hard, smooth scales. While his spear could not pierce those scales, wedging it between the tiny cracks between them gave him some measure of stability as he inexorably ascended.

After what seemed an eternity through the relentless windstorm, he reached the dragon’s head, climbing down to stand upon its snout, only mere feet away from where those terrible teeth nestled.

The great creature now knew fear, inspecting the invading “mouse” eye to eye. Those snatching claws slashed towards him, but he was already a memory, rushing along the snout in a frantic charge – spear right into the dragon’s left eye.

The shriek that tore the air shook the very stone of the cavern with its agony and wrath. The wyrm convulsed; the coils of its massive body trapped in a frenzied thrashing that was not directed by thought but pain.

The tormented twisting of the dragon almost tossed him from his position, but having luckily grabbed the snub-horn on the end of the snout, now dangling past those roaring jaws, enveloped by the choking miasma of the reptile’s tortured gasp. Arms stretched torturously from his fortunate handhold, he gradually swung himself back upon the dragon’s nose.

The creature has quietened somewhat – it still snatched at him but a measure of its intolerable hubris had drained out of its majestic visage, as the blood spewed from the empty eye-socket. It could survive the loss of one eye, even such a wound that leaked its blood with such savagery. But the baleful, still defiant gaze of the remaining eye faltered when it was plain that his second thrust was unavoidable.

The weakened behemoth thrashed once again, but with far less energy this time. The cry it unleashed was less a scream of rage than a whimper of despair. A blinded dragon was almost already dead, unable to hunt or fly properly or truly defend itself. The quaking form stilled, belaboured breathing was the only indication that the wyrm still lived.

“Krushikar, come closer. Do not fear me, I am defeated – you have won, glory to the victor." The last words the old firebreather had an echo of its former ire, too exhausted to inject more venom into its tone.

“I am a dragon, krushikar. I committed those ‘crimes’ as you call them, because of my nature. And, I suppose that very nature has brought my own destruction. But what other choice did I have? I cannot be any different than I am.”

Quietly, he dissented with the dying dragon. “You could have been, but you chose not to.”

Ereskigal did not hear him, continuing. “Krushikar, if you have any honour to your fallen opponent, do not leave me to die slowly of hunger or scavengers – slay me that I may die with dignity." Normally, when a dragon was crippled by age or injury, another of its kin would take its life.

A final verbal jab, as the dragon’s jaws set into the very human expression of a wry smile. “Live up to your name, _krushikar.”_ The once mighty creature bared its throat in total surrender, awaiting the final strike of mercy.

How could he refuse?

As the spear slid home once again, he wondered if the dragon heard his final words to it. “Goodbye, Ereshkigal.”

A shudder shot through the beast’s body as the stentorian breathing ceased in a harsh death-rattle. The last acrid gasp of Ereshkigal’s life washed over him, and then all was still. The only remaining sounds were the slow heavy plops of thick blood spurting and his own heartbeat threatening to drown his thought in its quickened cadence.

He carefully took off his armour, and lashed his spear to his harness. The memories came unbidden, as always as his hands caressed the dragon-hide unconsciously. His composure cracked with his victory, uncounted tears fell to mingle with the spreading spatter of dragon’s blood.

The hide of the first dragon he’d ever slain. Its tooth affixed to his spear, its scales forged together to make his shield. Always painful reminders of the path he had chosen. A thorny and bloody path indeed, but if not for him, all his kind would be wiped out by the lords and ladies of the earth.

He spoke again, even though the corpse of Ereshkigal could not hear him, nor the dragon whose hide he stowed away in his pack. There was no witness to his uttered words than the judge within his own soul.

“The time of dragons has passed – it is the era of humanity. Dragons must become a part of their world, learn to adapt to the new order or they will die.”

His voice shook; it was hardly as confident a recital as when he had told similar words to the dragon earlier. Sometimes, it was hard to convince himself that he’d done the right thing. Times like this.

Ereshkigal’s epithet in response to those words: krushikar.

This time his voice choked and broke, as the tears flowed unabated.

“Brother, I am sorry. I will always be sorry.”

Krushikar, he knew, meant “kin-slayer”.

Balancing the Scales

Cailean

Adelaide, Australia

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In response to Bubble Bestiary Challenge

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