Wow, I’m getting more likes on my fanfics than I ever have on the thirty-some-odd articles I’ve written for this site! Is that a hint? Because if you want stories, people, I’ve got stories.
This one’s lasting longer than I thought, and I’m loving it. My biggest fan (my sister) has somehow managed not to make a pest of herself trying to get me to write faster. That must have been a feat of Herculean self control!
It’s a really awesome experience revisiting this story, lost to the fog of memory. Because I don’t remember my original attempt at all– and I’m much older now– the characters are coming to me so much easier than they ever did, taking on life of their own.
Fight scenes are no easier. But I love them anyway.
The dragon roared, the terrifying, deafening sound far past indignation this time. Archion was angry. The descendant of Erdrick felt his senses sharpen in response, and as his blood quickened through his veins at the promise of battle, he thought that he could hear a startled cry beyond, a trembling echo to the dragon’s fury.
Gwaelin. Indeed, she still lived! The young hero’s heart leapt into his throat and his hand tightened around the hilt of his sword. How many times had she heard this sound, the sound of battle begun? How many times had she hoped this time her champion would be the victor? How many times disappointed, as silence again descended and no one came to set her free? How many tears had she spilled, as savior after savior died in vain, depriving her people of one more protector?
No more. As one, the descendant of Erdrick and the dragon lunged for each other, the hero dropping his torch as he did so. A powerful swipe of Archion’s right forearm impacted the hero’s large shield, the metal screeching in protest under the sharp claws. Blessedly, the shield he’d bought in Garinham held, and the hero was warmed by a flush of relief almost as heady as a strong wine. He’d reeled back a step under the blow, and moved with it, fluidly bringing his sword up as he surged forward again with an overhead swing.
The strike of the broad sword on the vibrant green scales of Archion’s left shoulder sent a shower of sparks into the air. Perhaps the dragon’s scales were made of metal themselves, or close enough. In any case, that blow had done no damage. He braced himself quickly as the left side of the dragon’s massive snout flicked to the side, a move he had not expected. It was like getting hit with a boulder. Luckily, his shield deflected the blow, but the impact sent the hero stumbling to the side, into the corridor in front of the dragon’s portal.
He could hear the dragon’s amused chuckle, rumbling deep in its throat, and the sound set the hero’s blood boiling in defiance. He cared not how confident the dragon was, how seemingly casually it had just sent him sprawling. He could not give up. Alefgard was depending on him.
He doubted the dragon would move from its post, so there was no choice but to charge and close the distance between them. His heart hammered in his chest as he ran, he fully expected to have to swing his shield back up any moment, in case Archion unleashed the fiery breath he’d heard so much about.
As he feared, it came to pass. The young hero of Alefgard got his shield back up just in time. A torrent of red-hot flame erupted from the dragon’s mouth and splayed out over the shield, engulfing it. It was a handsome shield when he bought it, a tall shield in a classic edged shape made sturdily of iron, the beveled edges gilded and a winged, serpentine wyvern etched and gilded on the face. In a few more moments, if he did nothing, he knew he would be lucky if even an ugly shield remained.
He could feel it heating. Soon it would burn his forearm. He needed to move. But the pressure of the flame . . . who knew from a dragon’s mouth it would be as strong as a raging river? A dragon’s fire was nothing like the wisps of dancing flame in a hearth, it had weight to it and was trying to drive him back with its strength. It was all he could do to stay on his feet.
In any other case, he would try to sidestep the flame, but there was nowhere in this cramped passage to go but back . . . or forward. He gritted his teeth and leaned into the spate of fire, trying to push back against it.
It only took one strenuous step before he realized this wasn’t going to work. The shield was going to maim his arm before this dragon ran out of breath. If only Gwaelin was guarded by the golem he’d heard about so much in the town of Kol! He’d heard about a flute blessed by the fairies that could put the golem guarding Cantlin to sleep. He’d had to track the flute’s owner to Rimuldar to find out where it was– a man named Howard had apparently dropped it back near the baths in Kol– but he’d acquired it. If only he could put this beast to sleep so easily!
Well, his strength was not all physical. If not the flute, perhaps some magic, then. The young hero chanted a magic sleeping spell. When it didn’t work, he yelped in pain. He could see the shield beginning to glow with heat. He tried again, calling out the words above the roar of the flames, and to his relief, the fire ceased.
He had no choice but to toss aside the warped, searing shield, biting his lip on another cry of pain. Panting, he smeared a poultice of magic healing herbs on his wounded forearm and regarded the sleeping beast. It had laid its head down on the rough floor of the cave, its horns projecting back over its long, scaled and spined neck. Laying down, the dragon was at its best protected. Its ochre-colored belly and legs looked to be thickly skinned, very tough, but the gleaming green scales had to be tougher. Heat rolled off of it, especially near the mouth, as well as a foul smell he had not noticed before, perhaps sulfur from its flaming breath.
The dragon’s throat, he now noticed, was not scaled. Perhaps he couldn’t finish the beast in one blow, even with time to line it up, but he could do his best to prevent it from using that wretched fire breath again. Without a shield, the young hero wasn’t sure he could survive it.
The dragon was asleep. He could retreat, get another shield . . .
No. He doubted that many knights who had braved the cave before had knowledge of the arcane. It may very well be that he had surprised Archion with this skill. To retreat would be to give the beast time to prepare for it on his return, or worse, time to warn the Dragonlord and his minions of his knowledge of spellcraft.
He needed every advantage in his quest going forward. This battle needed to end tonight. The young hero finished healing himself and studying his enemy. He could not hope for this spell to hold much longer. Lifting his arm, he thrust the sword decisively forward.
The leathery hide of the dragon was even thicker than he’d thought, and it didn’t help that the blow was not as true as it could have been. The dragon stirred, on the edge of waking, its brow furrowing in pain. The hero gasped in surprise. Perhaps dragons were weak to sleeping spells? He would certainly remember.
Erdrick’s kin didn’t dally, drawing his arm back to thrust again. This time the blow struck home, the blade sinking halfway into the dragon’s throat on its left side. It was only by long-honed reflexes that he managed to pull the blade out in time when Archion jerked awake, throwing its head back in a mangled roar that would have ripped the sword from his hand.
“Poltroon and blackguard!” the dragon screamed, the deep sound bubbling through the blood in its throat. It thrust its head forward to snap at him, enraged.
Now the hero had room to move. He sidestepped, to the left and forward past the dragon’s gaping snout. The noise of the dragon’s jaws coming together was like the snap of a guillotine, the sound bouncing short and sharp off the walls. Its teeth were white as ivory and fit together as neatly as a trap. He was too close now to swing the sword, but in a burst of inspiration he brought his arm across his body to give him the room to ram the pommel of his sword into those perfect teeth as hard as he could.
And he broke one. The dragon howled in fury and pain, bringing its right forearm up to swing at him. The claws scraped across the chest of his full plate armor, leaving deep gashes; they were so sharp they didn’t even dent it. The plate saved his life, but the hero could feel himself wounded. He gritted his teeth to contain a cry as the blow knocked him back a pace.
The dragon was fast, faster than one would expect so massive a creature to be. It immediately followed up with another snap of its jaws. Reeling back, the hero managed to pull his left arm out of the way just in time. His arm was gashed by the clenching fangs, but at least he still had a left arm. Without the new gap in the dragon’s teeth, he otherwise might not.
The hero grunted when his back came up hard against the cave wall behind him as the dragon advanced. He leapt to his left, toward the passage he had entered by, swinging his sword at the dragon’s throat and open mouth as he moved. The blow landed on the scales of the dragon’s snout, but it was well struck in spite of that, sending more sparks flying in front of the dragon’s eyes and leaving a shallow but steadily bleeding gash.
The dragon growled loudly and lowered its head, thrusting it forward, intending to pin the hero against the cave wall using the well armored top of its head and long, hard horns. The young hero managed to leap backwards into the tunnel as the dragon’s headbutt pulverized the rock in the turn of the passage to rubble with a thunderous crash.
The hero did not escape unscathed; as the explosion of rock sent rubble flying, some hit him in the helmet hard enough to dent it. The rock was sharp enough as well to cut him, leaving a gash in his brow that began trickling blood into his left eye.
There really wasn’t a lot of room to move here, and without his torch and the dragon’s breath, he couldn’t see. The young hero chanted the magic words of radiance, hoping the sudden light would also confound the dragon.
In this hope he was thwarted. The magical light sprang into being, but the dragon was far too angry– and the light was not nearly bright enough– to blind it. Despite not having the distraction he hoped for, the hero wasted no time, moving forward again to the right of Archion’s snout, this time slashing up at the fin on the side of the dragon’s face. While thickly skinned and tough, it was not armored, and the force of the blow cut part of the fin off cleanly. A spray of dark, dragonish blood splattered across the cave wall.
In a killing fury at this point, Archion reared up with a deafening roar, intending to finish this brazen upstart by landing on him, crushing him beneath its immense weight. The hero had led the beast to the passage he had entered through, which gave him plenty of room to retreat.
Even still, it almost was not enough. Archion was large and quick, the young hero was wounded and winded, and this move he had not anticipated. As the dragon began to slam its forelegs and head down, bringing the entire weight of its upper body to bear, the hero dove backwards, bracing the pommel of his sword against his armored sternum as he landed, holding the blade straight up. It was the force of the dragon’s own blow that finished it, the blade driving straight up through its jaw, through the roof of its mouth and beyond.
The descendant of Erdrick cried out in agony as the dragon’s head slammed down atop him, impaling itself but driving him into the cave floor with a force that cracked the rock below and around him. For a few long moments, there was silence.
The hero gasped, trying to breathe around his broken ribs and the weight of the dragon’s head. He’d retreated enough so that it was only the head that fell upon him, instead of the dragon’s upper body as it had intended, which was why he was not killed instantly.
In this moment, he wished he had been. His ribs were cracked and broken, and he could feel the wounds from the dragon’s claws on his torso, each of them throbbing like the cut of a whip. His left eye was stinging from dripping blood, and the cut on his forehead it came from was as vibrant with pain as the mark of a brand. His left arm was gashed and slow to obey, and his ears were ringing from the dragon’s furious roaring and the blow to the head. Surely he was done for. Even if both his arms worked properly, would he have the strength to move the beast’s head aside enough to escape?
Help . . . help me . . .
He blinked as he labored for breath. Had he spoken his thoughts?
He heard it again. Far away, muffled, punctuated by long and eloquent silences. A keening sound that resolved itself into words as he strove to focus, getting fainter each time as hope dwindled.
“Help . . . help me . . .”
He had no strength to gather, so he gathered his breath instead. He must bolster his strength with knowledge, now. Over and over again, in a voice breathless and mangled with the agony that simply breathing awakened, he chanted the words of the healing spell. His mind eventually grew fatigued, he knew his ability to call upon the forces of the arcane was almost exhausted . . .
. . . but physically, he was mended. Instead of simply trying to lift, he grasped the hilt of his sword and tried to turn, using the embedded blade as a tool to torque the head of the dragon off of him. For a moment, he feared that even this cleverness and his restored strength combined would not be enough to save him, but then the massive head began to turn. He took care to move slowly, as much strength and control as that required, for fear of snapping the blade.
After a long minute, the dead dragon’s head was set to his right, giving the young hero room to get up and pull his broad sword free. He cleaned it carefully before sheathing it and regarded his vanquished foe. He was surprised to know he felt more gratitude than pride. Archion had been a fierce opponent, arrogant and overconfident, yes, but clearly learned, and aged as well. He had never faced a foe more deadly. If he was going to be successful in his quest to defeat the Dragonlord, Archion would only be the first of many like it to be defeated.
He’d learned much tonight. A whole race of ancient wyrms and their allies had been magically subdued by the Ball of Light, it seemed. Now they were thirsty for vengeance, eager to spread unchecked like an indiscriminate plague, and the Dragonlord was only too happy to encourage this lawless violence for his own ends.
Having now spoken to one, the young hero knew that dragons were not simply mindless beasts to be slaughtered like many of the Dragonlord’s minions. It was more correct to think of them, he realized, as criminals and outlaws, like the occasional magician or warlock he’d faced on his journeys thus far. They were capable of thought, and therefore of upholding or breaking law; dragons were closer to humans than beasts.
For both races, then, to exist, balance had to be restored. The Ball of Light needed to perform its proper function, for everyone’s sake.
A glint of emerald light caught his eye. The young hero saw a lone scale, green as poison, gleaming on the ground. He knelt and picked it up, examining it thoughtfully. From a pouch on his belt, he withdrew a charm on a beaded and tasseled cord that fit neatly in the palm of his hand. It was a dragon’s scale, a token he’d bought in Brecconary, the city beside Tantegel Castle. It was said to have mysterious powers, a lucky charm to keep him safe, the shopkeep had said. The scale on the charm was faded from time, dull next to the crimson beads and rich plum-colored tassel. It didn’t look anything like the verdant scale in his other hand. Mayhap it wasn’t, how could he know if it was genuine?
Perhaps a prouder man would have scoffed. Clearly the dragons’ scales hadn’t done them much good, such a man might say, but the descendant of Erdrick preferred noble ideals to lofty disregard. Wordlessly, he took the old charm off the decorated cord and affixed the bright emerald-colored scale to it instead, vowing to remember all he had learned tonight. Maybe Archion itself was not worthy of respect, but perhaps dragons as a race could be. Time would tell. He would not condemn a whole race through one meeting, especially while they were under the influence of the Dragonlord.
He rose to his feet. The cave was silent now, and it smote his heart. She had suffered enough. Taking and releasing a deep breath, the young hero turned and started through the cavern, knowing it well enough to know his path around the dead dragon, to know the path to Gwaelin at last.
Picture Credit: The iconic Akira Toriyama is the artist behind Dragon Warrior, but ProfessorMegaman over on DeviantArt restored this piece nicely: https://www.deviantart.com/professormegaman/art/Dragon-Quest-Hero-Attack-Restored-360601111