“Bring me the blood and bones of a dragon,” the king told me. I braved a glance up from where I knelt some distance before him and I saw his face without humor. I looked back at the tiled flooring and awaited his reasoning.
“The blood of a dragon can make its drinker invincible in battle,” he said, “and that which is carved from the bones of a dragon cannot be broken, cannot rust or wear out, and will make its bearer impenetrable.”
There was a brief pause in his explanation. I heard a gasp from my beloved, from whichever corner she was watching from beyond me, and I swallowed nervously.
“I’ll require at minimum a pint and half and three or four bones of great length. If you can retrieve these,” my king said, “your endeavors will not soon be forgotten.”
I nodded and rose to my feet. “I have already accepted your challenge. I will not fail you, father.”
He cringed. I was no heir, born of peasantry as I was, and until the marriage, I was no son of his either. I smiled as I turned away, grinned as I slipped from the castle into the sunlight. I had some supplies to gather, a map to make, and then the world would be mine.
* * *
The earth shook beneath me as I stared into the open mouth of the mountain. There was a flash of fire from deep within, illuminating the cavern’s edges worn smooth throughout the dragon’s history over its hoard. I took a step back unknowingly, then realizing what I was doing, planted my feet firmly and held my ground. Only a show of genuine fearlessness could deter the dragon from instant attack, and in that moment of vulnerability, I would be forced to make my move and slay it once and for all.
It was, spoke the legends, the last dragon of the land, but for my future and my wife’s, I deemed the beast a suitable sacrifice.
The ground shook again, and I could feel its intensity growing as I watched small boulders dislodge themselves from the sides of the mountain and come rolling down around me. The tremors came more quickly, almost to a constant drone like the long thunders of deep summer storms, until all at once they came to a stop.
With the ground still again, I noticed a steady and slender stream of shadowy smoke rising from the lip of the cavern’s hidden inner crevices. I raised my shield, gripped tighter my sword, and braced myself for the inevitable.
I heard grinding from within the tunnel, a tremor too light to feel even at my close distance, and saw the scaly claws of a monstrous beast slide out to grip the edge of its eternally dark abode. The claws alone were each the length of my arms and the width of my thighs. I shuddered and swallowed and struggled to steal myself further.
A second claw came forth from the cavern, gripped halfway around the rim, and as the grinding grew greater, I saw the talons clench down and begin to pull out the beast within.
As the forearms of the beast came into the light, the glare that came forth was bright and blue, its scales green beneath of layering of ancient brown crust. From a distance, the glory of its hide seemed obscured by rust.
A thicker cloud of smoke erupted from the darkness as a single shining eye flashed through the cloud, bright yellow and enraged. The eye scanned for a moment, spotted me, and then the whole head turned toward me, pushing past the smoke and into the light.
My stupor was broken and I stumbled backward. My single chance was lost in an instant.
Its head was as large as a small bedroom in the castle, such as those I’d come to know intimately during secret trysts with my beloved–but instead of a welcoming air of delightful fragrance came the ashen pungent stench of sulfur and soot. Its face was long and slender, a snout baring large nostrils stiffing wildly as smoke still slipped from the sides. Its scales shimmered blue and green through the black mask of soot covering it, and around its bared teeth (yellowed with age) were long and string-like whiskers that framed it like sunbursts, whipping the air as if trying to sweep into its maw anything that came too close.
The sight was frightening, but save for the smoke still spewing slightly from its nostrils, the dragon only stared.
I set down my shield. I set down my sword. I stood up straighter and locked my eyes with his.
“I am old and tired, Son of Fire,” said the dragon, though whether it spoke aloud or directly into my mind I could not tell with my eyes tied with his. “It pleases me to see your youth disarmed. Speak kindly, and perhaps all our wishes can be granted.”
I nodded once and then bowed low to the ground. It seemed appropriate, and although it left me open to a sudden attack, I kept my face to the ground.
I heard the dragon’s grin more than I saw it.
“Your trust in my honesty, young warrior, amuses me. I am as much a sentinel of earth as I am a keeper of fire, yet you seem to appease me as if I were your god himself. Stand and face me honorably.”
I did so.
“Now tell me, man, why have you come here? Why have you ventured to the edge of the earth to greet me as you have so done?”
“My liege has sent me upon a quest,” I said, “to gain the hand of his daughter in marriage. To bequeath his interests I must return with the blood and bones of a dragon.”
The monster eyed me for a long moment and then swung its head away to look toward the stray skies in the distance.
“I had loved once, had sired many young a distant time ago, but their youthful ambition could not heed the warning of the elder dragons and they found their fates strung atop spears as trophies of war, the boons of bright young lads mistaking murder for strength, mistaking bloodshed for courage. My mate died a decade past by your standard of time. I have kept to my own since then, have told my tales only to those too weak to fight, and the rest have become but fragments of my legacy.”
The dragon swept its head around once more to face me.
“I wish to pass into the lands of death at an age as old as time, in a way free from struggle and anguish. If blood and bone are what you seek, perhaps there is another way.
“If your trust in me is honest, then follow me, Son of Fire, and see our destinies undone.”
The dragon retreated into its cave as the earth shook more violently than before. I considered briefly grabbing my shield and sword, but instead I lifted my blade and sheathed it, then left my belt lying in the sunlight. I followed the dragon into his cave, into a tunnel of darkness soon broken by a golden light at its end.
I soon came upon a chamber piled high with golden coins and golden goblets and golden scimitars, swords, and shields of every shape and size and crafting I could imagine, light pouring down upon the hoard from a gaping fissure in the ceiling above.
Almost hidden amongst the glorious deluge was the dragon itself. Long and serpentine, six legs spaced along its length each with claws and talons as those I had seen, a pair of long, thin leathery wings clutched tight to either side from its first set of shoulders to its last. Its face swung around once more and glared down at me through the golden light.
“Come in further, if you trust.”
I came in further. I walked around a pile on my left, through a valley that put me so close to the dragon’s first talon that my heart shook me so fast inside I felt lightheaded. Then on the other side, I saw precisely what he wished me to see.
Partially decayed and partially covered by golden artefacts rested the broken body of a second dragon. His mate. Once living, now long dead.
“I shall grant you all the blood of mine your liege may desire and bestow you with her choice bones save for her talons and skull, if in exchange you tell all your people that I have been defeated, that no more should come to my land, that I may die in peace and ascend to the stars in silence and solitude.”
I faced the dragon. I bowed once more and made my promise.
“My hide will not bleed lest my death has come, but the flesh of my maw will spill my blood profusely and heal as quick. If your trust is true, there lies an athame near your right foot and an urn near your left.”
I looked down and saw this was so. I lifted both, spoke a silent prayer to the silent sun god, and approached the beast.
* * *
“The great dragon is dead!”
My cry echoed through the capital even before a crowd had formed, but by the time an entourage had gathered around me, the rumors were whispered loud in disbelief–but when the urn of blood I carried caught their eyes and they saw the three rib bones as large as logs I dragged with a chain of golden links behind me, all their doubts were vanquished.
I presented my prize to the king and passed from his presence in silence. My beloved’s tower awaited me. I found her at once.
But I found her in fever, staring at the window with wet eyes and wet rags on her face.
She turned toward me and gripped my hand weakly.
“Forgive me,” she said, her voice faint and frail. “Forgive me, for my love could not survive us.”
I let my fingers fall lightly upon her face, let my fingers hold her lips in place.
“Speak nothing,” I said to her. “I shall find you a cure. I have crossed demons and delusions and dragons for you. There is no end I will not reach for our love, my love.”
A small smile broke her lips, but was quickly conquered by a stronger frown.
“There is no hope, Yoash, no hope at all. Every healer has been at my bedside, and every healer has failed to break my bane.”
I looked from her pale features, looked through her windows toward the distant sky and the setting sun.
“There is one cure no one has offered,” I told her. “The Elixir of the Sun.”
She shook her head, then whimpered from the exertion. “The Sun God is dead, Yoash. The Elixir has not been seen nor smelt in centuries.”
I stood at her bedside. “I am the Son of Fire; I know the ways to his land. I will find the sun god and I will find his elixir. I shall return for you, and our love will become the tales they tell to our grandchildren and to theirs.”
I knelt once more, kissed her lips and held her fingers in mine. Our eyes met, our love linked for eternity, and then I left on my final quest.
Near The End