by Slawomir Rapala
|Table of Contents|
Part 1 and part 2
appear in this issue.
The heat of the beast’s breath warmed him and without taking his eyes off the dragon, the General shook the heavy cloak off his shoulders and allowed it to slip to the floor. He stood before the dragon now in full armor which he put on before he left the cholchoz with Suna in the middle of the night.
The dragon’s great eyes narrowed as his sighted the man’s long sword and the quiver hanging low on his back, hiding a short antler bow and a handful of slim arrows. Aezubah was careful to keep his arms away from the weapons so as not to give the beast any reason to suspect treachery.
Man and dragon continued to stare at one another in complete silence and growing darkness and then the creature’s scales began to dim even more. It appeared that the dragon was losing his power, but Aezubah knew it to be something else. It was a sign that the creature was unconvinced.
The General’s heart sank as the dragon, now almost completely clad in darkness and only his red eyes still burning, turned his great body to walk away. Slowly his steps sounded as he disappeared behind the nearest corner, leaving the man stranded in darkness, and only a torch to light his way. It lay where Aezubah dropped it, still burning slightly.
The man looked after the dragon with a heavy heart, hoping against all odds that the creature would turn back. But no, the steps were distant soon, the roof of the cave stopped shaking, the dust and gravel settled again, and all was quiet. Aezubah picked up the torch in the silence and darkness that had claimed the cave once more.
He gazed into the flame for a moment. He felt no anger towards the creature, only sorrow and regret that he had not been a better man, a man that the dragon would deem worthy of protecting. The General understood the dragon’s decision. Placed in the same situation he would have done the same.
Still, as he made his way through the deep snow and the ice-covered passes of the Dreary Mountains, he nourished a faint hope. He hoped that the creature he saved, a powerful dragon whose kind had ruled the earth at one time, would have a greater heart than his. The General had traveled hundreds of leagues of hostile and frost-bitten landscape because he believed that the dragon was a beast nobler than man. So it was only regret now that he felt, having realized that the last of the dragons, locked away and hidden from the world in the depths of the mountains, would not find it in his heart to aid the man whose decree placed him there for the remainder of his life. It was with sorrow, but perhaps with a bit of relief as well, that Aezubah realized the dragon to be no more human than he was.
* * *
Some time later, man and demon faced each other deep in the belly of the mountain, their eyes locked in a silent battle for supremacy. The General gazed without fear at his terrible foe, though he knew that without the aid of the dragon, he could not defeat a creature of the Underworld. The hand holding the torch did not shake, however, and the flame did not flicker. It was only now possible for him to study the demon, though Aezubah suspected that the shape-shifter seldom showed his true face, much as he never unveiled his real name.
Presently the demon had taken the appearance of a medium-sized man, whose dark complexion betrayed a Southern origin. His features were sharp and his eyes keen. From time to time burning fires glazed over them, but Aezubah could not be sure whether it was not a trick that the faint light of the torch played on him. The demon was naked and the General was left to admire his slim, muscular body, free of any hair. It was the body of a god, crafted to perfection, and Aezubah scoffed quietly knowing that the true image of the demon was far from what he was allowed to see now.
The creature tilted his head. “You laugh, human?” his voice was a pleasant baritone.
Aezubah did not respond immediately. He put the torch in his left hand and approached the demon without fear. Halting perhaps three steps before him, the General studied him closely. He was not mistaken before when he noted two sharp objects rising awkwardly from behind the demon’s head. They were wings, folded now, but monstrous in appearance even in this position.
“I wonder, demon,” Aezubah did not answer the creature’s question, “I wonder how long you can keep this appearance? Already I can see part of your true face.”
The demon laughed. His voice was clear at first, but as the laughter continued, it became hoarse and deep, until finally it thundered throughout the entire cave like a monstrous chuckle, echoing off the jagged roof before finally dying. The light of the torch flickered under the weight of the beast’s breath and the General stepped back in disgust, unable to stand the sweet stench.
The demon then unfolded his wings and they spanned the width of the entire cave, touching both of its walls. Dark wings they were, hairy and marked by hundreds of thick veins that slowly twisted and bulged, as if whatever flowed in them, blood or fire, boiled in an intense heat. The wings were a monstrous contrast pitted against the almost divine body of the beast.
“It is a strange place you brought me to, human,” the demon folded his wings and stood before the General, again beautiful and godlike. He studied the cavern, “I feel something draining my power. I thought you escaped into the mountains in blind fear, but now I see that perhaps you had a purpose in it. This cave,” his hand drew a fiery circle in the air and it burnt for a moment after the beast lowered his arm, “This cave drains my strength. But it matters not, human. You cannot defeat me.”
“I know that, demon,” the General remarked calmly. His muscles tightened and this was the only sign of the intense anxiety that he presently felt. Weary after a long and treacherous journey through a hostile land, after months spent hiding in the jungles of Lyons eluding Biyackian troops, and now facing a fiendish foe whom he had no hope of defeating, Aezubah’s aging body was finally betraying signs of fatigue. With great discipline he tried to overcome it one more time, but in the presence of the demon, weakness lay claim to it. Perhaps the creature was draining his power too, Aezubah thought, as meager as it was.
“I know not why you chose this place to die,” the beast continued. “But so be it.”
“Tell me, demon,” the General spoke then. “What does my death mean to you?”
The creature studied the man before him, as if weighing the question in his mind.
“How did I wrong you?” Aezubah asked in a weary voice. He felt himself slowly slipping away, carried forth by fatigue. He felt his body grow limp.
“You wronged my master,” the demon answered finally.
“Who is your master?”
“You do not know him.”
“Is he of the Underworld?”
“I thought it was a myth,” Aezubah whispered. “How did I wrong him?”
“It matters not, human,” the creature shrugged. In the flickering light of the torch, Aezubah thought he saw the shapely arms of the divine body twist and blur. He blinked. A long and hairy limb surfaced for a moment, as if the true image of the beast fought to break free. The General blinked again and the horrible image disappeared, replaced once again by the smooth arm of a god.
“I cannot answer for something that I cannot remember,” Aezubah remarked wearily.
“You wronged him in birth, human.”
“Then why wait so long?”
“Earthly time means little to the immortals.”
“Immortals like you?”
In the distance, Aezubah heard heavy steps. The floor of the cave shook suddenly, and a bit of dust fell from the roof hanging over them. The demon’s shapely forehead creased and he looked around searching for an explanation.
A triumphant smile surfaced on the General’s lips.
“No one is immortal, demon,” he hissed, his features suddenly twisted with hate. Fatigue disappeared and his body was once again ready to spring forth. Heavy steps continued, the entire cave again shook under the great weight of the dragon who, a noble creature that he was, had decided to aid the human.
“Not even the gods are immortal!” Aezubah had to raise his voice to shout over the sound of the thundering steps and the rocks falling from the walls and the roof of the cave.
“What is this treachery?” the shape-shifter changed suddenly, his true body emerging from behind a mist that for a moment cloaked him. A monstrous head appeared first, red eyes peering into the face of the man before him. Long burly arms came next, followed by a hideous torso, seemingly sewn together from parts of all earthly creatures, hairy and black, black as the night. Muscular legs stomped the floor, wings unfolded and swept up clouds of dust as the creature shook his massive head.
The demon stood at least twice the height of Aezubah and now he looked down on him, bending the awesome muscles of his great neck. The cave continued to shake and the General held his ground, knowing that the dragon would emerge at any moment now. With his free arm he drew his sword and in its blade, he caught a glimpse of gold.
“Beware, demon!” he cried, raising his sword. “Beware the dragon!”
The golden-scaled creature appeared finally from behind a corner and halted. A long and shapely neck carried his head proud and tall and it almost touched the roof of the cavern. The great golden body shone in all of its magnificence and the light was so great that the demon, a creature of the Underworld, howled in pain and cowered back in fear.
“Impossible!” he roared, scrambling back towards the exit, its massive frame barely fitting between the great boulders. The dragon stood still, noble and proud, and watched the beast calmly, his large eyes unmoving and simply mirroring the demon who now struggled to leave. Dust raised by his heavy steps was beginning to slowly settle.
“By what magic, human?” the shape-shifter howled in fury. He could not stand the light of the mythic beast and raised his wing to shield himself from it. “By what magic?!”
“A stroke of luck,” Aezubah whispered, but neither the demon nor the dragon heard.
The General stepped closer to the demon, whose body stopped twisting and twitching and now stood still, his great black wing serving as guard against the great source of light.
“Dragon scales are mightier than anything you know, demon,” Aezubah spoke. “You cannot defeat me today. Go back to your master.”
The wing suddenly lowered and a pair of hateful bloodshot eyes peered from behind the black cloak. ”I will go back for now, human,” the beast hissed hoarsely. It was in pain and struggled to free its voice. “But you best watch your back. You can’t keep the dragon on a leash forever, and I will kill you then.”
Then the demon turned to walk away and as he did, his wings swept up another cloud of dust. Aezubah’s eyes narrowed as he watched the disappearing foe. He threw the torch away and dug his sword into the floor of the cave to free his hands. Then with one swift motion he reached for the quiver hanging low on his back and drew an arrow. In the next moment he took aim with his short antler bow.
“I won’t give you a chance then,” he whispered as he released the deadly missile.
The demon was disappearing behind one of the great boulders blocking the entrance when the arrow struck him in the one fragile spot where Aezubah saw soft tissue, pulsing with life at the base of his neck. It bit into his black flesh and the demon halted in mid-step. With great effort he turned to face his murderer and looked at him with eyes no longer hateful, but full of surprise and glossed over by a deadly mist.
“Treachery,” he whispered and then collapsed to the ground. The entire cave shuddered with disgust when his colossal body hit the floor. There it lay, motionless and mortal, slowly consumed by the dark mists of the Underworld until nothing remained of it. The two worlds were worlds apart and it was only through dark magic that the demon found his way into the earthly Realm and was able to sustain his strength and appearance throughout such long pursuit.
Aezubah remained unmoved, his slim body frozen in a readied stance, the short bow still in his hand, and his eyes glued to the twirling mists that swallowed the shape-shifting body of the beast. A sudden gust of wind that originated somewhere in the depths of the Underworld raised clouds of dust and Aezubah had to shield his face against the debris that was lifted off the floor. When he lowered his arm the mists were gone and so was the monstrous body of the demon. The gates were closed and boundaries no longer breached.
The General realized that darkness once again had cloaked him. He turned quickly, but only to see the dragon’s long golden tail, adorned with a row of spikes, disappearing behind the nearest corner. Like a ray of light it slithered behind the boulder and the sun’s last remaining son was gone, leaving Aezubah in the blackness of the earth’s belly.
He did not move to stop the creature. The debt was paid and no more did anything link man and dragon. Their worlds were worlds apart, and the General stood still while darkness leapt towards him with great speed. Only the slightly flickering light of the torch illuminated the cavern.
Aezubah walked over to pick it up from the ground where it lay. The flame grew and with its aid, the General gathered his weapons. With one last look he gazed at the blackness of the cave which stretched before him. The dragon’s world was now that of silence and night. The sun had set on its last remaining child.
Aezubah entered the narrow passage leading to the world outside and took the flame with him. Soon he felt the stinging bites of the freezing wind on his face and heard its vicious howling as it raced down the icy slopes of the Dreary Mountains, raising clouds of snow before it. The blizzard still raged outside, but this time Aezubah greeted its sounds with a quiet smile.
* * *
Suna watched the General from where he sat, sipping on a cup of mead. The batch they were tasting now was brewed last winter and the highland ataman had kept it hidden in an underground cellar for a whole year, waiting for the drink to reach maturity and gain taste against the oak barrel in which it was sealed. He opened it tonight to honor a great General and to say farewell to a noble creature, the last of his kind, now lost to the world.
“You have great skill, friend,” Aezubah said. “The drink is exquisite.”
The General rested before the hearth, enjoying the warmth the spread all over his aged body. He closed his eyes and lifted his chin, as if listening to the wind that continued to rage outside of the hut.
The highlander smiled and nodded, but said nothing in response. The mead eased his body and brought a pleasant wave of sluggishness to it, making Suna feel heavy. It was nice to be able to sit in a warm hut with the fire cracking in the hearth, while the world outside was cloaked in darkness and frost. Winter had claimed the Dreary Mountains and no one ventured outside of their dwellings.
“The snow is deep. You should stay until spring,” the ataman said after a long while.
Aezubah nodded slowly without opening his eyes. “I have nowhere to go anyway,” he remarked quietly. “Too many want my death. Even demons and gods.”
“You are a man like no other,” Suna said thoughtfully after a moment of silence. “Perhaps you have more in common with the dragon than you suspect?”
“How so?” Aezubah opened his eyes.
“The world is that of cycles,” the highlander explained. “You saved his life and now he saved yours. You are both powerful, but alone as well. And rejected by the world, you both live thanks only to each other.”
“There can be no friendship between us.”
“How can the wolf be friends with a lion? You are worlds apart,” Suna sipped on the mead. “Though of the same kind.”
“He is a dragon. I am a man.”
“You speak of garments that adorn the spirit.”
“Dragon scales are harder than any metal forged by men. And they burn like the sun.”
The aged highlander sighed and rested his head against his hands. “Can they not be matched by the strength and the fire of your will?” he asked. Then, having received no response, he added: “The time of the dragon is gone, Aezubah. But yours, yours is here and now.”
“I feel its nearing end,” the General shook his head.
“No,” Suna answered. “What you feel is age placing limits on your body. Your spirit is free. I know now that the dragon is free as well, though in a cave forgotten by gods. His spirit soars and shines like the sun.”
Aezubah smiled and looked at the highlander. “You are a philosopher,” he said.
“Someone wise and at peace?” Suna asked.
They sat in silence for some time longer, gazing into the blazing fire and sipping on mead, the taste of which was enriched by the smell of wild oak that grew in the valleys beneath the Dreary Mountains. Winter raged outside of the hut and such would be the world until spring came, melting the snow and bridging the harsh realm of the highland cholchoz with that of the valley-dwellers below. Animals would again bask in the sun and hunters would stalk the prey. Sheep would be grazed on the slopes and summer gardens would be tended by women and children.
Cycles. Everything would be as it should.
Copyright © 2006 by Slawomir Rapala