The Dragon Was Alone

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Chapter Three

It was near evening, not far off from sunset, and the day’s end when an enormous black shadow cast itself over Slygorath. He had only a moment, seconds really, to crane his neck upward to see what had caused the darkness. The drake caught the sight of two great sets of claws coming down, looking to grasp him. Evading the best he could, Slygorath dove low, hurdling for a space in the trees, but still, he felt the sting of scales being pulled up. Hot blood showered down on him as he changed from a gradual descent to a nosedive. As he plummeted, Slygorath attempted to steer himself clear of branches and limbs, but for all he was worth, it felt as though he hit everyone. The moment he had reached soft, cold earth, the drake reared up and readied to fight, but his attacker kept on its way.

As the shadow crept out of sight, Slygorath raced to an opening in the forest canopy to get a better look on his would-be predator. A golden, barbed tail was all the drake could see of the beast as it vanished over the mountain. Weakly, Slygorath gave up the chase and meandered back into the thicket Now, seemed as good of a time as any to rest for the evening. He still would need to find food enough to tide him over for the journey up the mountain. Moreover, he needed a way to tend to the gashes running parallel with his spine. Stalking his way through the wood, Slygorath found a shallow stream and came to rest beside it.

The narrow trickling, winding rivulet of mountain water was a disappointment; there was no way a silver and gold could live in it. There was, in fact, nothing suitable for him in the stream beside the water itself to slake his thirst. What darted about were mere minnows and the occasional snail that only ached Slygorath’s stomach worse. Thinking of those truly giant, shelled creatures imported from the far south got the drake’s belly aching all the more. Putting his snout to the air, Slygorath took in one deep inhale and was again left with disappointment. For the life of him, he could not catch the sense of anything in the woods, not a stag or hog, nothing. Crest-fallen, the drake lay his chin in the stream, knowing that he would starve this night.

As Slygorath ruminated hopelessly on all the opportunities to dive down into the forest before and snatch up a meal, movement began on the other side of the stream. Rolling a dismayed eye in the direction of whatever disturbed the foliage, the drake was stricken with uncertainty. What was capering about looked like stunted giants in round, bell-shaped hats of various colors. Adjusting his eyes, Slygorath saw now that they were not men at all, their fleshy tones were paler than any human’s skin was. Furthermore, their hats were no articles of clothing but the caps of mushrooms as large as a dinner table. Slygorath watched curiously as the fungal men marched about, uprooting weeds and popping berries and other forage from plants. One of the larger mushroom men, his cap being the only one nearly turned black, then began to collect what all the others had gathered. Taking the massive wooden bowl, the creature moved to the water’s edge and obtained water to drown the contents.

As the mushroom filled its bowl, it looked to Slygorath and gave something of a smile, if one could be made with those three blank holes that made up its face. With its bowl filled, the giant fungus returned to its fellows and set it in what was an obvious spot for gathering. The horde of little characters all began to take of the bowl, digging in with what looked to be hand-carved spoons. Their hands were odd ones, Slygorath wondered how they had made spoons, they lacked fingers and had only a thumb to help in holding the tools. It didn’t really matter to the drake; however, he studied them and considered how they went about life and, more importantly, how they had come to be. Whatever he could think of would be leagues better than lying there, forced, again and again, to remember the intense hunger tearing at him.

In time, the sun began to set, and Slygorath was nearly comfortable enough to fall asleep. It was a struggle to set himself on that course, ignoring his stomach that long was hard, but he had made it work. Just as he shut his eyes and felt the weight of lids come down, a splashing of water drew his attention. Standing before him was the massive mushroom man, again holding his great bowl filled with a different mix of material. There were some roots and other foliage, possibly a berry here and there, but nothing Slygorath would eat. He shut his eyes and muttered, “No want, no meat. Dragon eat meat, not green.” The bowl was then tapped against the side of his muzzle, drawing a good deal of his ire down on the mushroom. Again he remarked, “Meat. No plant, me eat meat. You no meat or I eat you. Lucky.”

As Slygorath shut his eyes this time, however, he was met with a sharp pain where he had earlier been wounded. Lifting his head to view the still healing gashes, Slygorath found one of the smaller mushrooms stumbling down his ribs with a smaller bowl. The drake thought to strike then, both fungi would be easy to smite, but he wasn’t sure if the foolish thing had hurt him intentionally. Coming up to the tall mushroom, the smaller one dumped his bowl into the great basin, adding to the stew. After doing so, it handed a hunk of obsidian to his fellow and put an arm out over the other’s bowl. With one quick and fluid slice, the giant mushroom cleaved the limb off the minor creature and allowed it to drop into the soup. Once more, he offered the bowl to Slygorath, the empty expression making the drake reconsider so quickly dismissing the gesture.

“I... very hungry, but... I try your food, but I no like. It need meat, I need meat, but me eat that, need it,” Slygorath grumbled before taking the proffered bowl. In one sup, followed by chewing what had to be the mushroom’s arm, he swallowed all that had been served. It was assuredly the first meal Slygorath had eaten that was not primarily if not singularly meat, but it wasn’t unwelcomed. He sat a moment, tasting, again and again, the rich earthy tones, the sinewy and stringy textures, and the unique combination that had been capped off with the mushroom’s arm. Slowly he set the bowl back into the black-capped mushroom’s hand, “Thank you, forest dweller. It not meat, but me like. I no have thing for you, no soup, no meat, nothing to give.” Almost unconcerned, the smaller mushroom again climbed Slygorath’s scaly flank and collected another bowl of the drake’s blood. Though it was against his will, the fungi also took a few of the loose scales hanging off the gashes. With that, the creature rejoined the black-cap, and their business was done. They left Slygorath to rest while they returned to the stretch of forest they had emerged from.

Sleep took Slygorath with ease after that; the sun was falling low and dark was overtaking the forest, but most importantly, the ache in his belly was gone. He did not move from the spot, sleeping with his head still hung in the stream, and his body only partially obscured by trees. Had he thought better of it, the drake would have nestled into the thicket as to hide from the beast that had attacked earlier. Yet, on the forest floor, very much crowded and concealed by trees, Slygorath was mostly safe from any creature flying overhead. However, despite his hide being spared the jabs of predators, Slygorath’s mind in dreams was not.

The night passed at a crawl as Slygorath was repeatedly plagued by dreams that turned to nightmares with ease. Still, what was worse than any terror of his imagination were the recollections of his rider. The fire-haired man was still out there, his connection faded somewhat but present as both he and Slygorath still lived. There came visions of his time as the man’s rider and still more machinations that were false memories. In his heart of hearts, Slygorath knew they were untrue, but still, he longed for those things that never were. To have the admiration of his rider and the love, to be honored and treated as some great thing, would have meant the world. Even now, free and able to do as he wished, possibly to regain some level of his natural power, Slygorath longed for his rider. It seemed to him that to be made a vassal, to lose one’s self, and be robbed of sovereignty was an easy thing. Having to watch as he became irrelevant, forgotten, and displaced entirely in the world was the real struggle. When the visions of painful memories and dead wishes finally dropped off and were replaced by utter blackness, Slygorath found true rest, albeit for only a few brief instances.

Dull sunlight filtered down through the trees onto Slygorath’s slowly opening eyes, an extreme contrast to the sharp, jagged pain that pulsed from the center of his forehead. Looking to the stream, his reflection revealed nothing. Slygorath could only blame the mysterious stew the mushroom had given him in the night. It was unnatural for drakes to eat anything but meat, the answer was as simple as that. Dipping his brow into the cold stream brought some, if only a slight relief, however, Slygorath would push through it and persevere. He had to reach the mountain’s heights today, it would be the highest he had ever flown. Looking up at the daunting peaks and narrow ledges that disappeared into the low floating clouds, Slygorath could only grimace and lament this journey. Eyeing his back, the drake could at least count the single blessing of having his wounds healed. They were scabbed over, looking only a touch better than they should have. Again, Slygorath had to take into account the fungi and that perhaps the little one had put something on the gashes while he siphoned blood and stole scales. He couldn’t dwell on it overly long, Slygorath knew it would only be harder to reach the summit the later the day dragged on.

It took the better part of the day for Slygorath to ascend to the peaks of the mountain. He was thankful that after his run-in with the behemoth that he could still fly. Doing so caused him some hurt but not enough to stop him. By no means was the journey an easy one even with the ability to fly. Firstly, to fly directly upward was a challenge for Slygorath, it took too much effort and would exhaust him in no time. He was forced to make sweeping cycles to and fro, winding up the base of the mountain little by little. Once he had made it past the first layer of rock that formed the tertiary peaks, the lowest of the heights, Slygorath was able to rest. Midday had come by the time Slygorath was attempting to reach the secondary stratified layer of rock. Rounding up the mountain in laps worked until he had reached the halfway point, at which time the winds began to make his wings into fleshy kites. Were he a larger dragon, Slygorath assured himself, he would not have been so easily pushed by the icy gales. For the latter half, the drake climbed by claw. The sunset was not far off as he reached the top of the second layer, Slygorath did not stop now, he kept on. The winds had died down, allowing him to clear those final peaks in a far shorter time with much greater ease. By nightfall, Slygorath walked the lands that sat at the mountain’s top but still beneath a final peak that had been invisible from below.

As he crept through the forest of frosted over rock, Slygorath found in the distance plumes of smoke and the light of lanterns. Eagerly, the drake pressed on, hoping these folks would be just as generous as those in the swamp had. With night quickly growing darker, Slygorath wanted only food and rest. However, as he moved closer, a streak of snow-white fluttered and flashed in the sky before careening down, crashing to the earth. As the loose dirt and snow settled, a fierce, hard-eyed gryphon. Not unlike the gargoyle before it, the gryphon made a show of itself, letting Slygorath know right away this village was guarded. Yet, this gryphon was not alone; two ashen furred creatures were close behind and set down on either side of the drake. A final, one of their numbers lingered closer to the huts. It was almost a perfect doppelganger to the first save for the helm covering the top of its skull. A dark streak ran from its chest, down its ribs, before terminating at its flank, a well-aged battle scar.

Cautiously, Slygorath stepped one more pace closer and called, “I come, ask for help. Old one, wise one, in swamp, say wise one here can help. Fix things broken, taken. Where is wise, old one?”
“What are you waiting for, boys?! Rip it to shreds! No dragons, no riders, none are allowed at Acceyon’s Peak! Now show them we mean it!” called a silhouette who stuck close to the black-marked gryphon.
Again, Slygorath tried to resolve the matter simply, “No rider, all alone. Slyg-gorath, have no rider! I see wise one!?”

The gyphons heeded the drake for only one second longer as he tried to bargain for his own safety after that was gone, they were on the warpath. The pale creature at the lead let out a deafening screech that jarred Slygorath, his mind screamed back in pain. Before he knew it, the drake was bleeding, not from his hardly healed wound but a far more vital and tender spot. Talons and beaks had descended on and torn asunder the dragon’s thin, fleshy wings. Pain shot through Slygorath’s body, worse than the attack the day prior or the hunger or those scars left by his taming. Howling out, Slygorath felt his lungs empty with his shriek, but with it came a viscous discharge. For a moment, it streamed uninhibited as Slygorath battled to regain control over himself. Once he had settled slightly, he opened his eyes onto an unsightly, unexpected image.

Thick, glowing of a vibrant yellow-orange, the fluid he had sprayed out of his throat entirely by accident, coated the area all around him. Steam rose from the frozen stones, the snow and weeds had vanished, but most vulgar was the fate of two of the gryphons. Flesh, fur, and feathers were falling away, everything engulfed by the acidic smelling fluid was melting into itself. It took only seconds for it to work deep enough to kill the two, of them, it had to have felt like lifetimes. The third, one of the slate-gray gryphons, looked to its brethren, terror clear in its tiny eyes. Slygorath stared at him, speechless, unable to explain or justify what he had done. There was no time for words though, the gryphon quickly turned on him and lunged forward.

With its fierce beak, the gryphon tried to strike out one of Slygorath’s eyes; however, failed, only digging up scales beneath it. The attempt was without success but served purpose enough, the drake reeled back, guarding the eye. Again it lunged, this time for the throat, but Slygorath slapped him down, not pinning the gryphon to the ground yet still injuring the beast. Considering his options, Slygorath thought to release that fluid again but wasn’t sure if he had more in him or if he had any real control over it. His hesitation cost him the opening, Slygorath was again put on the defense as the gryphon hopped and leaped, pecking and slashing at soft spots in the scaly armor. Thin, shallow wounds were beginning to dot the dragon’s face and paws, they would not bleed out, but the acute pain was a nuisance. Even as this gryphon tried and tried to do him harm, Slygorath wanted only to go forward and see this wise one. He wasn’t even thinking as the gryphon lunged again for an eye, allowing Slygorath to catch him in his jaws.

Turning to face the silhouette and the other gryphon was an even greater mistake. Seeing it caught, seconds from death, spurred the pale one on. She launched herself with great haste and fury, leaving the spot she had sat, reaching the drake in only a heartbeat. He had thought she would come to talk, reason, and negotiate the release of her fellow; instead, she went on with the attack. Flying overhead, the pale female fell onto Slygorath’s back and began tearing at the wings once more. They were surely little more than a cobweb of loose flesh now. Slygorath clenched his muscles tight as the pain roared through him; however, as he did so, his jaw grew tight. Bones snapped and cracked while blood oozed down his chin, it took only another instant for Slygorath to realize what had happened. Reflexively, the drake tossed the limp, ruined body to the ground, trying to work his lips in an apology. Even if he hadn’t meant to harm the gray gryphon, the white female wasn’t about to stop.

Noticing the rough, half-formed scabs on Slygorath’s back, the white gryphon dug in, uprooting the dried seal of blood and digging claws deep into the flesh. Agony was all the drake could feel then, again on reflex alone he responded by rising up on his back legs and collapsing onto his wings. This gryphon was clearly the superior one among its fellows, she had snaked away just before Slygorath hit the stone and was beside her master in seconds. With a groan, Slygorath picked himself up and sought the pale furred beast once more. He still felt reluctant to fight; even after all they had done, he couldn’t bring himself to harm them intentionally. However, as he looked to the gryphon and the villagers forming around her with spears and bows, Slygorath could see he had no choice.

As projectiles began to rain down where he stood, Slygorath felt something inside of him harden. It was impossible for him to say what was happening, what was changing, or even where this shift was occurring, but as it did, he began to trot. Slow at first, Slygorath moved towards the village, the metal tips of weapons bouncing off his scales and the wooden shafts breaking as he did not move to dodge them. With each step, the dragon picked up his stride until from a trot he was at a canter and then a full sprint. The hardness in him did not cease, it was endless and increasing in strength infinitely. Focusing on this aspect of himself allowed Slygorath to slip away inside himself, allowing instinct to take the reins. Like a passenger in a carriage, he watched as seemingly someone else took control of everything.

Villagers were quickly swatted and smashed into the ground, there was little chance for survival even were they wearing armor. The gryphon dove and slashed at Slygorath, but the wounds left were of little effect now. He was so beyond physical pain after losing his wings and having that wound torn open, Slygorath felt nearly nothing. Gore became thick in the air, not only the sight, a dense red mist rising with every strike of the claw, but the odor, a metallic taste, and the sound of it sloshing. Taking flight for only a second, just to get high enough to fall on Slygorath without catching a spear itself, the gryphon dove on the drake’s wound just as he began clawing open huts, having destroyed most of the attacking force. The attempt to stop Slygorath, to use that raw wound to break him, was short-lived this time. Shaking the gryphon in only seconds, Slygorath put one massive claw on the beast’s chest and dragged it across the rough ground, littered with broken bodies and weapons. Back and forth, the dragon grated the gryphon against the coarse surface until her screeching drowned out all else. Once he was satisfied, Slygorath tumbled her away, letting the once white, now blood-stained creature lay limp far behind him.

It all became very still then, calm winds whipped through the village as the final pained groans turned to death rattles. A dark man appeared from behind one of the furthest huts, his hands raised and empty, showing he meant no harm. Quickly, terror evident on him in both voice and scent, he began, “Stop! Please, by Jue’ ene stop! You want the wise one, old one, yeah? She is gone, no longer here, dead. Your people, the riders, they came

up here only a couple seasons ago. They burnt here. Said she was casting spells, hexing nobles. She was no villain, nothing like that. We all pleaded for her life. Your people, they put her to the torch anyway. That spot, back there, she’s buried there. Go on, see for yourself.”
“Too late?” Slygorath asked, his mind clearing and a sense of self returning to the otherwise removed creature that terrorized the village.

Proceeding through the row of huts that made up the village, Slygorath came to a rock wall that still bore the markings of soot and black ash. A mound had been made, flowers planted about it, and the beginnings of a sapling pushing up from its center. Slygorath grit his teeth in fury; he had come so far, lost his wings, and left all this destruction in his wake just to find the one he sought dead. Miserable as he was, Slygorath almost did not notice the movement going on just to his tail. The sound of mechanism working, struck the dragon’s ears, as he turned to face it, a scalding fluid sloshed onto him.

The aromatic odor of oil and the intense heat blinded and disoriented Slygorath, spears and other projectiles only served to aggravate him. Still, the attempt to take him unawares was the most infuriating part of it all. Again, he roared, and his throat began to feel thick until a geyser of reeking golden fluid spurted out. This time, however, Slygorath maintained the stream and had some control over it. With ease, the drake sprayed down the attacking villagers who had launched the bucket of burning oil on him. After dealing with his attackers, Slygorath proceeded to spray down all of the huts and anywhere else he envisioned a human could have hidden. In mere minutes, the village on the mountain’s top was gone, ever resident slain, and the only memory left of it all was the congealing lake of what had once been a life, now melted away like snow in the spring. So spent, so utterly worn down, Slygorath lay on the wise one’s grave, tucked his head beneath his tail, and slept.

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