8. Clearing the Air

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Morg scrabbled his way down the gravelly slope to the bowl-like depression of his dung pit. What had once been an ancient lakebed was now covered in a millennium's worth of excrement in various stages of calcification. Shaped like slumbering pythons, some were mushy and oleaginous while others were gray and hard as stone. He had barely reached the pit when the convulsions started.

Morg's esophagus clenched in rolling waves until the contents of his stomach came spewing forth: blackened chunks of half-digested flesh, patches of charred fur, wiry tangles of sinew, and delicate, white splinters of bone, looking strangely clean. When it was all over, he lay winded on the ground. Where could all those bats have come from? On the rare occasion when a straggler wandered into his domain, Morg saw to it that it never had the chance to repeat its mistake. Perhaps they had gained access from the inside, he considered. The mountains were honeycombed with crevices a small animal could slip through. But a whole flock of bats? A larger rift must have opened up somewhere.

This will not do, he resolved. He would find the breach and seal it. If the bats returned, he would be waiting for them. But first he had to do something about the smell.

* * * * *

With clumps of fresh pine jammed into his nares, Morg braved another incursion into his lair. He proceeded cautiously down the entrance tunnel, breathing through his mouth. The stench was still detectable through the plugs but not overwhelmingly so.

The smell was infuriating. It would take a moon cycle or more to get rid of. He couldn't simply flame it away as he might have in the open air. Aside from the residue, it was the height of indecency to flame inside one's own lair. He would have sooner purged his bowels on his own tail.

Once in the central chamber, he set about scanning for bat droppings. Their sickly gray-white glow would not be difficult to spot. Yet he found none at all. The treasure-cones scintillated reassuringly, clean and unbesmirched. The paths between them were smooth and dry. It was most peculiar. Surely an infestation of such magnitude would have left abundant evidence behind.

Growing more puzzled by the moment, he proceeded to inspect the adjoining chambers. These too he found to be in good order. There was no draft, no moisture, no crack that an ant could have crawled through much less a bat. Nothing but the overwhelming stench of fresh guano.

Morg paused in his tracks. Something strange was going on here. Prying open one of the plugs, he brought his head around in a slow circle. Sure enough, the scent was stronger in the direction he had just come from. Clamping his jaws shut so his breath wouldn't stir up the air, he concentrated on discerning the source of the smell.

There! He detected a slight clumping in the air, a barely perceptible aroma. He took a couple strides toward it, paused to sniff again and adjusted course. The trail gradually became stronger, eventually leading him to a cone of golden discs in the center of the chamber. This close to the source, he could make out another scent concealed within the first like a maggot within rotting flesh. This new scent reeked of salt and mildew and spoiled eggs. It was the raw, unmistakable scent of a manling.

* * * * *

Moribus watched the red glow fade as the dragon delved ever deeper into the mountain in search of a flock of incontinent bats it would never find.

He knew better than to hesitate. He should have accosted the dragon the moment it emerged from the tunnel when he had the element of surprise. Instead, he had watched it twice circumnavigate the great chamber and then wander to within a mere twenty paces before disappearing down a side passage. There was no telling when it would return. Dragons did not experience time as ordinary mortals did, and the network of feeder caves could go on for miles. It might even leave by another exit, leaving Moribus to pine away among its treasures. Perhaps it would be for the best. He was ready to die. Why not here? He could not have asked for a more lavishly appointed mausoleum.

There's still the girl, he reminded himself. She would never find her way out of these mountains on her own. Then again, she just might, he amended. After all, she had survived several months in a dragon pit. Half-witted as she was, she had something of her grandmother's hardiness.

The scars on his forearm glowed an ivory pink, alerting him to the dragon's return. Crimson light spilled from the mouth of a side cavern, bloodying the tips of the stalactites high overhead. A moment later, the dragon stepped through. Sniffing the air, it took a tentative step in his direction. It was remarkably sure-footed and quiet for its size, like a giant cat on the prowl. Pine branches were jammed into its nares, an improvisation that Moribus had to admire. Prying a plug partway open, the dragon paused to sniff, holding its snout low to the ground. It crossed the great chamber slowly, edging ever closer to his position. As the cone-shaped shadow contracted around him like a tightening noose, Moribus was seized by an unexpected and thrilling terror. He felt alive in a way he hadn't in years, decades even. His heart drummed in martial time. He wanted to weep and cower and laugh.

Come forth, oh mighty warrior! The words sounded in his mind like a call to arms. And don thy armor bright. Oil thy shield. Sharpen thy blade. Steel thy courage. Fight! The rhyme was from a childhood game he had played back in Twin Oaks. The players formed themselves up into two ranks. A champion would move down the opposing line one person at a time while iterating through the syllables. When the word Fight was spoken, whoever it landed on must step forward and battle the champion in hand-to-hand combat.

Moribus had been especially good at the game, but that was not why he liked it so much. He would arrange it so that he and Meglinda, who insisted on playing alongside the boys, were on opposing sides. He had worked out the number of syllables, and as often as he could without arousing suspicion, he would call her out. She wrestled just as ferociously as any of the boys and, given her tendency to kick and bite, was even more dangerous. A lifetime later he could still feel her limber body writhing in his arms, the smell of crushed grass and churned earth all mixed up with the buttery scent of her hair, her dirty cheek pressed against his as he urged her to yield, all the while hoping she would not.

The dragon's head wasalmost directly above him now, the flame gland throbbing luminously at the backof its throat. With the word Fight! resounding in his mind, Moribus roseand declared in the throaty, rasping language of dragonspeak, "Hail, oh mightyserpent!"

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