1. Enter the Dragonslayer

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Sharp claws raked Morg's flanks as he bore down on the thick neck of his clutchmate. Scales crumpled beneath his teeth, some shattering in the process. Fighting back pain, he worked side to side to expose the layers of corded muscle underneath. Blood pumped into his mouth, salty and hot. He clamped down with all his might until, at last, he felt the satisfying crunch of the esophagus and the body of his clutchmate went limp.

Morg's eyes snapped open onto pitch darkness. Where in the void was he? He tapped a claw against the stone and took the measure of the echoes as they wandered back. The acoustic landscape was at once reassuring and familiar: the high-domed ceiling and branching tunnels of his own lair. He had only been dreaming then. The stabs of pain in his sides were not the claws of a clutchmate but the gnawing pangs of hunger.

Waking from long-sleep was something Morg never got accustomed to. The return of sensation to his numbed body was like a thousand antlers poking him beneath his scales. His eyelids were crusted and heavy, and the palate of his mouth chafed like bark against his tongue. But that was not the worst of it. He took a tentative sniff. The scents told the tale: the reek of bats and rodents, the metallic tang of oxidizing metals, and the swampy miasma of mildew. Spawn of the Worm, what a stink!

He dared to crack open his jaws. Weak light from his flame gland illuminated a scene that was every bit as dreary as he feared. His treasure-cones of precious gems and rare metals were coated in a fleecy layer of dust. Some had slumped over, victims of the occasional temblor or avalanche that rumbled through the mountains. A hairline fissure had opened in the cavern roof, and a droplet of water collected on a warty stalactite, falling plop.

Morg groaned inwardly. In the span of a long-sleep—fifty odd turns of the sun as common beasts would count it—time had wrought a spell of decrepitude over his treasure-home. It would take many moon cycles to restore it to its former glory. But restore it he must. If there was one thing Morg could not tolerate, it was disorder.

But spring cleaning would have to wait. He needed to eat—and quickly. Ungainly as a hatchling, he lumbered to his feet and made the arduous climb up the narrow tunnel leading to the outside world. Blinded by the sun's glare, he plunged right into a thick bank of snow.

Claws of the Great Serpent! he swore. Of all times to awake from long-sleep, it would have to be in the dead-freeze of winter. The caribou would have retreated to the lowlands, requiring him to fly a goodly distance in pursuit of food, which had probably all gone lanky and tough by now. Even worse, his drink-pond was capped in a thick layer of ice. In his present state, he could barely melt an icicle. Taking inspiration from the idea, he plucked a spear of ice from the lip of the cave and placed it on his tongue. With a tingle of pleasure, the water trickled down his parched gullet, turning to steam as it passed beneath his fire gland. With each fresh icicle, warmth slowly diffused throughout his body.

He heard a crunching noise from downslope. He sniffed the air. Ram. Not his preference, but it would suffice in a pinch.

* * * * *

"Oooooh—There was once a fair maiden called Rose, that had a thorn on the end of her nose—"

Moribus Ansol Polibdemus the Third, famed dragonslayer, sang loud and out of key, but he didn't much care. Only the flobbery mosquitoes and tuneless crickets were listening.

"And if a beau tried to peck her, she would prick the pecker—to take her flower you must first pick her nose."

He had picked up the scandalous verses a lifetime ago as a boy on his father's farm in Twin Oaks, overhearing the talk of the seasonal farm hands. His pa would have strapped him good for repeating them, which was why he had been inclined to do it so often.

"Oooooh—There was a brazen young monk called Babbit, that saw no point in wearing a habit, 'til he set out one day, met a squirrel on the way and—and—Blast! Habit, habit, habit. What rhymes with habit? Rabbit. Grab it. Blab it. Nab it—Dammit!" He stepped in something squishy. Balancing precariously on one foot, he scraped away the gummy layer of caribou dung from his boot-sole with the hardened root that serviced as a walking stick.

"You're too old for this crap," he groused. It was a point he had long debated with himself, but now it had become a statement of fact. Moribus was, undeniably, too old for tramping around godforsaken hills in all weathers and seasons. His joints creaked, and his muscles had gone stringy as month-old celery. Even his bones had turned against him, jabbing him mercilessly when he went to sit or lie down. He ran his tongue over the ruined stubs of his teeth, recalling what it had been like to have a full set of dental fortifications. It hadn't been so very long ago.

"When are you going to give up this jack-fool quest, old man?" he said aloud. Years of seclusion had blurred the boundaries between speech and thought. "If you had a follicle of sense left in that craggy ol' noggin of yours, you would have given up this dragon-hunting nonsense ages ago. You should be resting your bunions in a sweet villa by the sea, drowsing away the afternoons in a couch-net while an island goddess serves you up peeled grapes."

"Surely you're not thinking of Avila by the sea?" he took umbrage with himself. "Why'd you have to go and dredge that up?" The seaside paradise, like so many youthful aspirations, had failed to deliver on its promises. The screeching of seagulls grated on his nerves, the sun smarted his eyes, and he found the texture of peeled grapes repulsive. As for the natives, they may have been rich fodder for the eyes, but they were most odious to the nose, owing to the cod oil they generously slathered upon their hair.

Moribus trudged along in silence while he navigated a treacherous stretch of high ground. It had misted that morning, making the loose gravel wet and slick. Back on level footing once more, it wasn't long before a new idea wrinkled his thoughts. "The Purple Valley—now there's a place worth visiting. Finest wines and the richest goat cheese in the seven kingdoms. Oh, the things they can do with a tomato!"

"Ugh! If you're looking to end your miserable existence, I can think of less agonizing ways than Purple Valley cuisine. Or have you forgotten what happens when you eat tomatoes?"

"Salu'Marar. The city that never slumbers."

"Salu'Marar! Are you cracked? It's hot as a greased griddle in summer. Melt the skin right off your bones it will. And the way the Saluus run around wearing barely a stitch to cover their—oh, never mind that. They're barbarians and warmongers, the lot of them. I shudder to think of what goes on in those arenas of theirs. And to think they call it sport."

"Well, piss on you!" Moribus lost patience with himself. "You're just a bitter old man with a heart full of wormwood and a belly full of gripes."

"And you're just a damn old fool with a head full of pixie dander."

The conversation devolved into a barbarous round of name calling which, like picking at an old scab, was not without some gratification. But as the insults fizzled out, a leaden heaviness began to set in. He slapped a mosquito trying to siphon blood from his neck; it would have had better luck sucking juice from a raisin. "I suppose there is one place..."

"Here we go again. Haven't we milked that old heifer long enough?"

"Don't tell me you haven't thought about it too. Just picture it: a quaint little farmhouse in a green valley somewhere with a few chickens and a milk cow or two. Remember the taste of fresh cream?" If there was one thing he still looked forward to, it was the taste of fresh cream. "You could raise your own plot of sweet peas, maybe plant a fruit tree or two. Oh, and you could look after the girl there."

He made half a smile. "Look after the girl, you say?"

"That's right. She may be a few wickers short of a basket, but I bet she's pretty handy on a farm. Living with her grandmother in the woods all these years, she's bound to have picked up a useful skill or two."

"Hmmm," he considered. The idea was gaining appeal with every day that passed with no sign of his dragon quarry. "It's not the worst idea I've ever heard."

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