7. An Act of Incontinence

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Moribus shuffled down the throat of the dragon's lair as quickly as his creaky old legs could manage, slipping and stumbling but always careful not to crush the rucksack containing his paraphernalia. Torchlight blossomed in crimson tones along the smooth walls, adding to the impression that he was descending into the innards of a giant beast.

At last, the tunnel leveled off and opened onto a vast chamber. The ring of torchlight dissolved into blackness, and the sound of his footsteps wandered off to return only as a chorus of whispers. Something winked at the edge of his vision. As he moved closer, it grew into a mound of coins ten feet across at its base and nearly as tall as a man. He identified dozens of currencies on sight, but there were many more he had never laid eyes on, a host of kingly countenances marching away into deepest antiquity. Resisting the urge to stuff his pockets with them, he moved deeper into the cavern, sweeping his torch from side to side.

All around him, more treasure mounds winked into existence. Here was a pile of emeralds, there rubies, sapphires, opal, onyx, gold, silver and pearls. Some were composed of only coins or gemstones while others contained rings and jewelry, crowns, scepters, goblets, ornamental daggers and swords, even a golden birdcage. There seemed no end to them. In his day, Moribus had seen many wonders: the vanity of tyrants, the pride of nations, the aspirations of the church, even the treasure troves of other dragons. Yet he had never before witnessed wealth on such a scale, carefully arranged into symmetrical, evenly spaced mounds. Were the Seven Kingdoms placed up for auction, there was enough treasure here to redeem them and live like a king off the remainder.

A noise sounded out from the entrance tunnel. He swung the torch in a downward motion, triggering a small cage to snap into place over its head, snuffing it out instantly. He reached for the pouch of bat guano. When he had applied a fresh coating, he crouched behind a treasure mound to wait.

* * * * *

As Morg made the final descent to his lair, a powerful stench of bats wafted up to meet him. The incongruous sensations of desire and nausea sent his mind spinning dizzily. He took a deep draught of air and held it in as a tickling sensation built up at the back of his gullet. When he could barely contain it any longer, he unleashed a crackling cone of flame that sent heat ripples playing across his double-lidded eyes. The stench of bats dissolved in a pungent aroma of sulfur and brimstone.

Trailing smoke, Morg tucked his wings and plunged toward the dark, welcoming mouth of his lair. He skidded along the smooth floor, his scales throwing off sparks against the mineral-infused stone. He flared his wings to dampen speed, emerging at a controlled rate into the central chamber with its forest of twinkling treasure-cones. Safely inside the sterile sanctity of his lair, he took a long, deep breath—and nearly gagged. Rather than dissipating, the reek of bats had multiplied a hundredfold. It was more than he could stomach. Feeling an irresistible need to retch, he beat a hasty retreat back up the tunnel.

* * * * *

The violence of the dragon's entrance took Moribus by surprise. There was a multi-phonic ringing as of a hundred swords being drawn, and the tunnel filled with electric sparks. A tremor traveled up through the stone floor, vibrating in his joints and causing his shattered teeth to ache. All around him, jewels and coins quivered musically on their mounds. A rush of chill air rifled his hair and pressed coolly against his eyes.

Like a sorcerer's illusion, the dragon materialized out of the roseate glow of its open maw. Jaded as he was, Moribus couldn't help but be awestruck. Not only was it half again as large as any other dragon, but it was also the most fearsomely elegant. Its sable eyes were round and rimmed in gold like hollowed-out moons. The ruby scales on its breast pulsed incandescently from the heat of friction while its wings were more sensed than seen, crackling and humming on the still air. Its hind legs were thick as hundred-year oaks, its claws keen and black as obsidian. If darkness and fire could have been baked to a high gloss and infused with the breath of life, it might have looked something like the beast before him.

The dragon's breast swelled as it inhaled deeply of the cool, cavern air, intensifying the glow of its fire-heart and throwing elongated shadows across the chamber. Suddenly, in mid-breath, the great jaws snapped shut like a trap, plunging the chamber back into darkness. With a sound of snapping wings and scraping claws, the dragon fled back up the tunnel.

Moribus wasmomentarily at a loss. What could have driven it away? He lifted the front ofhis guano-encrusted tunic to his nose and cringed. Perhaps he had laid the batdung on a bit thick. How was he to tell? His sense of smell wasn't what it usedto be.

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