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Fantasy Sad

This story contains sensitive content

Sensitive content; physical violence, suicidal ideation, loss

Banners snapped in the wind which carried the calls of the townsfolk out into the open air of the valleys. The constant low dust cloud that surrounded the town seemed to be dancing in response, a happy little jig of triumph. The sun – usually remorseless and cruel – felt almost pleasant today.

The dragon-hunter, the greatest warrior of their day, was here, and everything would be all right.

Gaius, loaded down with armour, swords, knives and nets, waved and smiled at the crowds that had come to see him out. He smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. He had been here before, so many times, and the outcome was always the same. They cheered him on the way out, and they cheered him on the way back.

But this time… This time he promised himself he wouldn’t fail. This time he wouldn’t be a coward.

The further out from town he got, the more the crowds dwindled, until it was just a couple of gutsy teenagers running along with him, asking him questions about slaying dragons. He humoured them, and sure enough even their bravado ran out. It was just Gaius alone on the road now. Even the birds gave up this close to a dragon’s nest.

The familiar tingle of anticipation and fear started building in his stomach. It was an old feeling, one that was half nostalgia and half shame. He shouldn’t feel that any more. It was a weakness he couldn’t afford to show.

“This time,” he said aloud. “This time it will be different. Courage, that’s all I need.” He had said that every time, and still nothing changed.

Following the dragon trails to the right caves was easy. They weren’t subtle, not if you knew what you were looking at. The worn patch of earth were they took their dust baths, the pile of bones where they left the remains of their meals, the flattened vegetation and claw marks where they landed before walking into their nest. All of them screamed a warning to Gaius, a warning he gladly ignored.

All the armour and equipment Gaius was carrying made him jingle like a bard, so he never bothered with stealth. Pulling out the long, barbed spear from his kit, he walked forward. There was a heat in the air, something far warmer than the blazing midday sun. That and the weight of presence proved it; a dragon was in the nest.

Gaius didn’t run. With a measured pace he headed for the cave entrance, sticking to one side just in case. As much as he wanted to trap the beast in its den, he knew the speed they could reach as they leapt from their nests. He needed to be beyond the threshold before he blocked it, down where it couldn’t stretch its wings.

He made it to the edge of the shadows without hearing anything. Taking a deep breath he braced himself. This was it. Another dragon, another chance. He couldn’t fail this time, not again. With one last look up at the sun and a silent prayer, he walked into the dragon’s lair.

The smell of a dragon was hard to describe. It was hot, like an empty bread oven left burning. Hot and dry, leaving you breathless and coughing. There were a few aromas under that; a reptilian musk, the faintest hint of decaying meat and a fragrance that Gaius had never encountered anywhere else. Not that he had doubted he was in the wrong place, but it was reassuring to have proof.

Gaius waited just inside the entrance while his eyes adjusted to the gloom. It was not pitch black inside, as dragons liked to have fires burning in their nests. Either that, or they had a tendency to set their nests on fire so often that they didn’t bother putting them out.

At last he saw the beast. It was curled up along the back wall of the cave, wings slightly open and rustling as it slept. Heavy eyelids covered the glittering orbs of its eyes, and Gaius tutted. A sleeping dragon was no use. He’d have to wake it.

There was more he could do to prepare for the fight to come. He could trap the entrance way, he could hide spare weapons around in case he got disarmed, he could put some of the fires out, which were only hindering him and helping the dragon. He could kill the dragon now and spare himself the fight… All these thoughts raced through his mind, and he ignored them all. They were the thoughts of a coward, and this time he wouldn’t fail.

Drawing the small buckler that he had strapped to his waist, Gaius shook himself out and took his last easy breath. He slammed the spearhead against the metal shield, again and again. A cacophony of noise filled the cavern, echoing back from the slanted ceiling and from the deep darkness at the back of the cave.

The dragon jumped in its sleep and its eyes flew open. The reptilian film flashed away, revealing the vivid deep red of its eyeballs. As red as blood, the stories said, but Gaius knew it was as red as old blood, not fresh blood. He’d seen enough in his time to know the difference.

It took the dragon a second to spot Gaius, and only then did he tuck the buckler away and ready his two-handed grip. The dragon lurched to its feet, but still Gaius waited. The dragon noticed this, and tilted its head. Of course it didn’t refuse the chance to get ready. As one hunter to another though, it couldn’t understand why it was being given the chance to fight fairly. But humans had always been unusual.

Gaius waited until the dragon had gotten to its feet and shaken the sleep off. Then he waved the spear at it, as if to double-check that it knew what the situation was. The dragon, of course, took the chance he offered it. It darted forward and snapped at his neck, but Gaius brought the spear round in a sweep and made the dragon pull its attack up short. He jabbed back at it, and the dragon swerved away. It eyed him as it paced, trying to figure out what this strange warrior was up to.

They attacked back and forth, each testing the others abilities and reflexes. The dragon was cautious, well aware that it was at a disadvantage pinned inside the cave. Gaius was reckless, over-stretching to try and provoke the dragon to attack.

Gaius stepped too far. His foot caught on a loose rock and slipped away from him. The dragon dashed in, snapping at Gaius’ face. Gaius’ hands flailed, even as he surrendered himself to the fall. This time though it was the dragon’s turn to hold its attack. Its teeth came within inches of flesh and bone, but the memory of being allowed to wake up and ready itself was still bugging it. Instead of a killing blow, he leapt over the prone warrior and fled for the open sky.

“Damn it!” Gaius rolled and forced himself up, scrambling after his prey. He couldn’t lose another chance, not after so many attempts. He had to make it angry enough to attack him. At the entrance to the cave, with the dragon gaining speed and height, he threw his spear.

The shot was more lucky than skilful. Desperation lent him strength, and the spear flew true. It pierced the dragon right through the centre of its wing, the barbs catching the delicate flesh and ripping a jagged gash. Screeching, the dragon plummeted straight down, too shocked to do anything other than fall. It came down in a heap. The ground shook under the impact of its fall, and Gaius staggered, almost falling himself.

“Damn it,” he mumbled. He drew his sword and made his way carefully across the space between them.

The dragon was a mess. It had landed badly, breaking at least one leg and hitting its head hard enough to break open the scales. Blood was already pooling around it. Fresh blood, brighter than the dragon’s eyes. Gaius kept his gaze away from it. Each breath the dragon took was rattling and pained.

Loose scree skidded away under Gaius’ heavy tread and the dragon’s eyelids flickered open. The film didn’t clear this time, and in its concussion it couldn’t focus on the small human. It knew he was there though, and its body relaxed in the face of its death.

Gaius sighed and looked away, tears in his eyes. He’d failed again. So many dragons he’d fought, and so many times he’d won. All he needed was for one of them to beat him, just one. How hard could that be, given all the advantages the dragons had? He thought about leaving this one. It might die anyway, given the state of it.

As he was weighing up his options, there was a screech overhead. A shadow passed over the sun. Another dragon! Gaius’ breath caught in hope. This was it. There was no way this could fail. He ran forward, right in front of the fallen dragon, but not too close. Then he raised his sword, held it in a killing blow, and waited.

The shadow got closer, heralded by a warm breeze as the new dragon’s wings battered the air. It must’ve spotted the scene below; it screeched again, at a higher, more desperate pitch, and there was a boom of air as it went into a dive.

At the sound of its companion, the fallen dragon’s eyes had cleared. Its first thought had been the threat to the other dragon, but then it saw the human’s actions. The human could’ve killed the prone dragon, again, but once more didn’t. The human was after something else.

Heaving in a deep, painful breath, the fallen dragon called out a message. Short, harsh, bark-like cries. The shadow stopped its descent and called back, but the fallen dragon repeated its phrases. After a pause the shadow grew smaller again, the wind lessening.

“No!” Gaius cried. “No, come back! I’ll… I’ll kill it! I really will! You need to come and stop me! Please!” Gaius had dropped his sword and was yelling at the sun. “Just kill me!”

The words echoed around the empty valley. They bounced away into nothingness. There was no response.

“Just kill me,” he whispered again. He looked at the ground and tears fell.

Gaius heard movement behind him and he closed his eyes. At last. This dragon would finish him off, would punish him for the wrong he had done it. Instead, a smooth, warm snout nuzzled his cheek. The pained exhales from its nose started drying his tears.

In the silence Gaius felt compelled to speak. “I’m sorry. I just… I wanted a way out. Dragon hunting is the most dangerous profession. It should’ve been easy. I shouldn’t have survived my first fight. But… as much as I want to go, my instincts keep me fighting. I’m sorry. I just can’t do it myself.”

The dragon nuzzled him some more and made a soft crooning sound. At first Gaius thought it was from pain, but then he realised it was trying to comfort him.

“You should hate me. You should kill me, for what I’ve done to you. I’ve crippled you. You could die from your injuries.”

Gaius tensed himself as he invited death, his stomach fluttering with nerves and anticipation. One sweep of the dragon’s head would send him hurtling across the rocks, and if he landed as badly as the dragon had, the fall would kill him. Or a snap of its teeth and it could take his head off. A claw to his back would shred his spine–

The dragon stretched round to look him in the eyes. The films were peeled back now, the concussion gone, and Gaius was staring at something that could read him like a book. It understood his grief, his despair, and instead of fear or hatred, it pitied and sympathised with him. It wanted to help, no matter what he had done to it. It understood the madness that grief brought.

Gaius looked up at the shadow circling overhead like a disappointed vulture. As reckless as he’d been with fighting dragons, you couldn’t survive several fights with them without picking up a few things.

“That one’s younger. Smaller, with more rounded wings. Not your mate then. A child. Which means…” Gaius looked back into the dragon’s eyes and swallowed hard before he could say the next words. “You lost your mate as well.”

The dragon nodded, its eyes mirroring the anguish he felt in his soul.

“I’m… I’m sorry.” It felt stupid, saying it to a dragon. There was no denying the light it brought to the dragon’s eyes though, and it nuzzled him again. In spite of everything, or because of everything, Gaius laughed. “We’re a right pair, aren’t we?”

The dragon gave a dusty chuckle, then hissed and winced. Gaius looked at the injuries he’d caused. A dragon’s claws wouldn’t be able to do anything for those wounds, but human hands could.

“I…” Gaius paused, then blushed under the dragon’s quizzical stare. “All right, so I know this is stupid, but hear me out. I can help you, if you’d let me. I can tend to your wounds, help you heal up, look after you. I know it doesn’t change the fact I did it in the first place, but…” The dragon kept looking at him, and in its silence the rest of Gaius’ confession was dragged out of him. “But I don’t have anything, back there, in the human world. We never had a child, I didn’t have any other life outside of us, and now… all I can do is kill dragons. And I hate it, I really do. I only started it to solve my own problems, but its only made my problems worse. Everyone wants me to kill dragons now, and they’re all so proud of me, but none of them know why I do it. None of them care. I don’t want to go back there. I don’t want to be their hero any more, their dragon-slayer. I want to do something good with my life. So please, let me stay here. Let me help you, until I can work out something better to do. Please?”

The dragon watched him for a long minute, and Gaius thought it was rightly going to eat him at last. It must’ve realised that was all Gaius had to say though. It came closer and licked his face.

Gaius laughed again. “I guess that’s a yes.” Cautiously he stretched his hand out and touched the dragon’s cheek. It closed its eyes and rubbed its head into his palm. Gaius’ whole body buzzed with a new, intoxicating feeling. Life. Hope.

Closing his eyes, Gaius rested his forehead against the dragon’s. “Thank you,” he whispered.

September 30, 2023 00:08

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1 comment

Mary Bendickson
22:43 Oct 02, 2023

A friendly fiend.🐉💞

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