16. The Mighty Morg

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Morg's three hearts quickened at the sight of the manling. There was nothing like the bright sparkle of a soldier carapace to snap him out of a pre-hibernation melancholy. With excitement swelling in his breast, he swooped in for a closer look.

Manling shells were a wonder of nature. No two were ever alike. They came in a variety of colors: pewter, coal, eggshell, silver and gold. Some were dull and plain as pillbugs while others were crystal-bright and etched with intricate patterns. Their mandibles came in both smooth and beaky varieties, and their craniums often boasted feathers, horns or even antlers. Some even bore distinctive markings on their breast that resembled some animal or object in nature.

What Morg saw this time was so remarkable he almost forgot to beat his wings. Not only was the shell unusually large and a burnished gold in color—the rarest sort—but the distinctive markings on its breast and club-arm bore a miraculous similarity to his own shadow. He couldn't believe his good fortune. This shell would find a very special place in his collection.

He pulled up at the last moment, passing so close to the manling that he could peer through the horizontal eye-slits to the dark cores beneath, which were black and mindless as an insect. He banked and completed a circuit to land a few wingspans in front of it. Suppressing his excitement, he forced himself to concentrate on the task at hand.

Manlings had to be treated with the utmost caution. The slightest blow from tail or talon was sure to damage their brittle shells. Blazing the beast wasn't an option. Not only was it morally reprehensible to flame another living creature, but dragon-fire left permanent scorch marks.

Soldiers were not without their defenses. They had nasty stingers or barbs that could draw blood if they managed to find a chink between scales. Indeed, killing a soldier manling without damaging its shell was like trying to subdue a walking, stinging egg.

The manling broke the standoff first. With a defiant bark, it flailed its legs against the carrier beast, causing it to lurch forward. He had to admire the creature's boldness, if not its common sense. Even the witless caribou would flee when it saw a dragon coming, but a soldier manling had no qualms about taking on something twenty times its size.

Launching himself into the air, Morg swept up and over it, coming down on the other side. He repeated the maneuver several times as the manling wheeled and charged, barking and clanking all the while. It tried all the usual tricks: inching closer while attempting to look harmless and disinterested, trying to anticipate his next move and race there ahead of him, or attempting to circle around and catch him from behind. Morg had seen it all before. He even allowed it to come close a few times so it wouldn't become discouraged, though he made a point of never letting it out of his sight. If there was one thing the Great Serpent had overlooked in a dragon's design, it was some means of removing a stinger from its back.

The carrier beast was the first to show signs of tiring. Its nostrils flared with every labored breath, and a heavy lather poured from its mouth. For all the manling's insistent kicking, each successive charge became slower and more ponderous than the last. Soon, it could barely manage more than a shambling walk.

The time had come, Morg judged, to set about the delicate business of killing. Arching his wings high over his back for balance, he prodded at his quarry with his fore claws while his tail snaked around to menace it from behind. The manling lashed out wildly with club-arm and stinger but lacking opposable eyes and an adequate number of appendages, it was at a severe disadvantage.

Claws poised to snatch the manling the instant it went limp, Morg's tail flicked in for the death strike, aiming for the soft spot on its back where the armor plates came together. He seldom missed, but this time was the exception.

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