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A Dragon's Decree

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A Dragon’s Decree

Mick C. Sylvestre

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright 2016 Mick C. Sylvestre

The Shakespir Edition

ISBN: 978-0-9950093-2-5

 

Publisher’s Note

A Dragon’s Decree is a work of fiction.

All names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.

 

Owned and Copyright by Mick C. Sylvestre

Cover Art by Mick C. Sylvestre

 

Thanks to my close friend & editor: Jose Mari Armengol Lee

 

All rights reserved, including the rights to reproduce this e-book or portions therein in any form whatsoever.

 

Dedication

 

 

Here’s to those who have to write
and here’s to those that have to read through it.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

CHAPTER I

As the autumn morning light spilled into Emperor Maxillus’ open chamber room window, he stared at the ceiling mural. A lush, colorful painting depicting his rise to power and the hurdles he had faced. So strange, he mused, for I am not finished doing what I started. Unable to sleep, he arose, sitting up on his Lexus, still donned in his regal military uniform, unlike the kind the colonists wore which was strikingly similar to the kind the ancient Roman soldier’s wore. The one he wore came from Earth; this one conformed to the shape of his stocky demure form. He sat stroking idly at his blonde locks of hair atop his head, and then he smoothed his trim blond mustache down to his beard. His thoughts overflowed like water in a tipped basin, each escaping stream of liquid as important as the last. His mind was on an odd little companion he had met many nights before. From the moment he met Amakhu, a servant to the dragon kingdom, he knew that his life would never be the same.

 

“Tell me what are you and why were you sneaking through the grounds?” Maxillus asked in the middle of the night as the guards surround Amakhu, their spears pointing at the odd lurching creature. “Go on then, speak. Before I have one of my men here, remove your tongue.”

“Why I’m a runt dragon.” Amakhu stammered out. “Originally I came to discuss matters with your Emperor, but as you can see, I grew peckish.” He held up a little cage full of some juicy rodents he had gathered in his little stroll through the royal garden.

To Maxillus, the “runt dragon” looked like someone had dressed an anurous alligator forced to wear a monk’s robe then taught it to stand upright and speak. “You have a name?”

“Call me Amakhu,” he knelt down to place the rodent cage on the gravel path then he slowly stood upright. “I represent the dragon clan your people have been at war with from across the sea.”

The Emperor looked into the creature’s eyes for any betrayal, but all he saw were crocodile eyes blinking back. Although the creature looked intimidating, his manner seemed to disarm enough. “How did you come to speak our language so well?”

“A human took me in as a hatchling; she taught me how to speak humanese. Later, I learned how to read your language too.” He shrugged, “well… most of it. I’m not too keen on handwritten text, though. I rather prefer the printed word; it’s easier to read.”

“Are there any others like you? Did you come alone?”

“I came alone, and there are no others like me anymore. The dragons have killed off my people. I’m the last of my kind.”

“Yet you serve them?”

“I only serve Ishmet’s will.”

“Who is that?”

“My master and the leader of the dragon clan you are at war. It was he who sent me to come here.”

Maxillus motioned his men to lower their weapons and drew closer to Amakhu, his hand stayed on the hilt of his sword (just in case). “I’ve never met anyone like you before.”

“I could say the same about you,” Amakhu chuckled, then cocked his head at an angle. “Say, could you escort me to see your Emperor? I came all the way here to visit him. I’m afraid it’s urgent.”

“If you are referring to my uncle, he died of a fatal wound from fighting a dragon.” Maxillus displayed the royal signet ring on his hand. “So if you need to speak to the new emperor—I am the person you seek.”

“Oh dear…” Amakhu fretted, “I guess you’ll just have to do then.”

“My temper matches my short patience, runt dragon,” He tapped his fingers on the hilt of his sword, “so tell me why do you trespass?”

“I came here in the name of peace,” Amakhu noted the human’s chiseled face slackened, just a little. “Ah, so the rumors are true, your people do seek to end the dragon war.” He rubbed his scaly hands together, “Good, that’s good. Perhaps I can help you in that quest?”

Maxillus looked hard at the runt dragon, “I’m listening.”

 

That morning, they sat together in the den to discuss the matter further. Amakhu tried to master the art of drinking his tea but failed miserably—at which he’d later admit that some human customs eluded him.

“I assure you, Maxillus; ahead of you is a difficult journey only you and I must do alone.” He padded at the wet tea that soaked into his robe. It was still warm and smelled of spiced orange rinds.

“Can’t I bring Sergius along? He’s my adviser since I started being an Emperor.”

“No,” Amakhu shifted uncomfortably. “Only two may come, simply because my caravan can only hold two.”

“You came here in a caravan? But the dragon realm is across the ocean,” Maxillus looked at Amakhu like he lost his mind. “You do know that we’re on an island in the middle of that ocean. We’d either have to leave by ship or-”

“We’d be flying,” Amakhu interrupted, “we’d have to leave before the monsoon season, or the dragons shall return after that. Once they arrive here, there’s no hope in stopping them. Like you, humans, once their teeth are in something they can’t let go.”

“So you’re saying they’re stubborn?”

“Hmmm?” Amakhu blinked, unsure of what to say.

“Dragons,” Maxillus smirked, “you’re saying they’re stubborn like humans.”

“Yes,” Amakhu nodded. “That’s what exactly I said.”

“Ah, I see… yes.” Maxillus knew this would be an interesting trip.

 

As Amakhu left with the promise to return, he left Maxillus to his plans to prepare for the long journey ahead.

To forge the peace pact, I would have to leave the comforts of the island to meet the dragon clan leader in person. The Emperor mulled over as baby Janus bounced gleefully on his knee. He agreed to Amakhu’s mad plan. Together they would leave that night.

So when night came, Amakhu took the Emperor to the fields where his squatback waited. After a few minutes of discussing the trip, Amakhu introduced the Emperor to his trustworthy beast of burden Keppaku, as they prepared to leave. The squatback flew them high into the air, taking them across the miserable sea. Traveling on the caravan roof Amakhu himself had built, strapped across the squatback’s back. Maxillus sat at the front end of the caravan beside Amakhu. So while Amakhu used the reins to steer the flying beast, Maxillus held on for dear life. The beast they rode looked like some massive, hairless, dinosaur-like creature that had long, leathery wings which folding in on the side like a bat’s would. With each beat of its wings, they rose higher and higher into the sky.

The trip went on for many blistering days and chilly nights. Unlike Amakhu, Maxillus wished he had spent most of the time inside the caravan, instead of atop of it. But even there, he supposed, that he would suffer from utter boredom. In the final days, morale began to wane. Thus, tensions were high. Amakhu and Maxillus started nitpicking over the minutest of things. That was until they were at each other’s throat. Just when they were close from doing harm to each other, the sky cleared. Keppaku called out to announce that land was ahead. The Dragon realm they had traveled so far to see, spread out before them, a lush tropical rainforest filled with mystery and adventure. Both parties quickly came to their senses. They apologized for their unacceptable behavior, with the promise of never doing it again.

They were so excited to be back on solid land again.

The instant Keppaku landed, Maxillus climbed down from the squatback to kiss the ground. Together, Maxillus and Amakhu limped their way towards Ishmet’s cave. But, after meeting Ishmet, Maxillus realized the price it took to bring honor to his people again. What’s more, it meant a lifetime of peace for his son.

 

Maxillus knew in his heart, that no one else could do what he had set out to do.

 

I guess it’s Time to go; Maxillus sighed as he reached for the red cloak off the hook in the wall he paused at the open door. He then turned to face his room and washed a tired hand through his thinning blond hair. All of his belongings brought along from Earth would remain behind to gather dust, everything from his medals of honor, to his archery trophies. Where he had plans to go, he would not need such memorabilia. Without hesitation, Maxillus headed towards his son’s room. There, he bent low to kiss baby Janus on the forehead, praying to the Gods so he would not wake. After his short-lived visit to his son’s crib, he took one last stroll around the mansion, bidding farewell to his staff; embracing those that wept at his departure. As he closed the door to the mansion, Maxillus turned his attention to the coach. There, patiently standing, was his adviser Sergius, sporting a meticulously trimmed black beard, and his eyes shadowed behind a hooded cloak as dark as night, emblazoned with the emblem of the Emperor’s family crest which he wore with great pride: a gold snarling lion head.

“Ah, there you are.” Sergius, Maxillus’ adviser, clapped and bowed. “Are we ready to leave now?”

“We are,” Maxillus nodded as he gestured for Sergius to enter the coach first. Just before the coach took off, he stole one look back with a heavy heart. As the coach driver outside the carriage cracked his whip galloping off to the docks, Maxillus noted the condition of the countryside from the devastation the dragons had delivered to his people: abject poverty.

“Look around you, Sergius,” Maxillus cleared his throat. “Look at the extent of the damage the dragons had inflicted upon us. How my people suffer. How can I merely standby when I can do my part in ensuring them a safer future?”

“Even in chaos,” Sergius added in, “life seeks out opportunities.”

“Morning is not the time to go philosophical on me, Sergius.” Maxillus raised an eyebrow but kept his attention to the window. “I don’t have to remind you how important this is, do I?”

The Emperor’s coach hurried along the trail, passing the citizens as they assembled to repair the damage done to their farms as well as the villages. As a courtesy, the Emperor waved from his cabin at the farmers and workers along the way.

Maxillus spotted the area where once a bakery stood that had sold such tasty pies. I’ve come to like it here, Sergius. At first, I thought that I could never adapt to living on this planetary rock, but in time I think it was the best assignment I’ve ever had. I’ve live among the colonists, protecting them from the dragons for many years now. Soon, that too shall end.”

“I have no doubt that you have, your Emperorship.” Sergius shared his Master’s feelings. “We love having you here, especially your son Janus, but there’s still so much more you can-”

“Stop right there,” The Emperor looked at Sergius hard in the eyes, “I know where you’re going with this. But at least he’ll be able to grow up. You just make sure he understands why I did what I had to do if I don’t return.”

“Not if he turns out to be as stubborn as you.”

Maxillus laughed, nodding his head. “Then he’ll be a handful; I can assure you. Even my beloved mother would testify to that.”

“But…” Sergius pressed, “Surely there’s another way. Can’t we get someone else to represent you; to fight in your honor?”

“You think Markus should take my place?”

“It’s only a suggestion,” Sergius retorted, “after all, he has experience.”

“That’s a bit of an exaggeration. He’s been a trapper,” Maxillus leaned in, “I assure you I’ve fought my share of dragons as a soldier.”

Maxillus looked out from the coach as it ambled along the rough trail leading them towards the docks. He spoke low and reserved, “how I wish I could, but I promised Ishmet. I gave him my word.”

“But sire—” Sergius blustered, “the solution he prescribed is futile, there is no honor in this!”

Maxillus turned on his adviser, “Ishmet has assured me there’s great honor in this, Sergius. It’s you who don’t understand. He’s shown me the valor, as well as the pride his clan has, that my sacrifice won’t be in vain. Besides, what’s an Emperor if he cannot keep his word? I promised my people a solution; now I have one.” He shrugged off the anger he felt, “personally I plan to live through this ordeal; I just accepted the possibility that I might not be returning.”

“Then, with your permission may speak frankly?”

“That’s never stopped you before.”

“It’s a fool’s pride, suicide at best.”

“Sergius,” the Emperor warned. “Even though you have proved countless times to be most faithful to me since you’ve been my top adviser, your liberal tongue continues to offend me. It would be a shame to have it removed.” He paused to let the words sink in. “For now, I depend on your faithfulness, even if it means acting blind to my…”

“Pride, perhaps?”

Maxillus loudly exhaled in exasperation, “No — deliberate goal to end this war.

“When I worked for your uncle, I found him a little eccentric, but now I see it runs deep in his bloodline.”

“I knew I should’ve had your tongue removed a long time ago.”

“That’s a morose thought, my Lord. How could I function well as a consul, if you’re too stubborn for any sound advice?”

Maxillus nodded, “you’re correct Sergius. You’ve helped me through the most difficult times. Now I must ask that you do not stand in my way. Keep from challenging me in front of the others. For I fear in my present state, I might do something you wish I hadn’t.”

Sergius grew quiet after that.

CHAPTER II

As the coach stopped, Markus, a shout man with a blaze of unkempt red hair, rushed over to unlatch, then open the carriage door. When the man smiled, his tanned face wrinkled, his eyes gleamed of drunken merriment. The firm grip of his thick, rough hands on the door betrayed years of manual labor. As Markus stood back to allow the Emperor to pass, he shifted uncomfortably in his military clothes. Markus knew he didn’t deserve his position; for his head as well as his heart, he had belonged in the wildness trapping and skinning prey. There, he had a history of tracking, baiting then killing dragons for sport. A talent Maxillus admired enough to make poor Markus a Captain of his personal guards.

“The dock is secured, my Lord. The ship Captain awaits to receive you — your Emperorship,” Markus hailed his master. “And I hear the wind is in our favor. We could very well be on the island before noon leaving us plenty of time to get you set up.”

“Perfect.” Maxillus noticed the unusually flawless condition the Trireme was in; as if they had just finished building it before he arrived. He eyed the massive sails, the corded lengths of ropes, the dangling pulleys, including the rows of oars on each side of the ship. Maxillus smiled as the Captain barked orders to the sailors to lower the sails to get her ready for departure.

A funny thought just came to me, Maxillus mused, I could board this ship, take command then just sail her away, and never return. But then I know that I’d live to regret that decision for the rest of my life.

“You know,” Markus smiled roguishly, “they say you can take the man out of the military, but you can’t take the military out of the man. Does that bode true for you?”

“It might.” He chuckled; “when I arrived here I thought that I would be Captain of the Guards—I didn’t expect to become the next Emperor.”

“You were the only heir left on the planet; the people needed a leader.” Markus huffed, “unlike your friend Dexius, of whom I could never trust.”

“Oh, he’s not so bad once you get to know him.”

“Perhaps,” Markus looked at Maxillus, “but the cost of doing business with him is far better if you are at an advantage. He invests his interests in gain, not loyalty.”

“Which reminds me, where is he? Dexius should be here already.” Maxillus looked around clearly annoyed. “The ship’s almost ready to set sail, and we can’t wait much longer.”

“I sent one of my men to the province of Stratagasca to personally give him the message,” Markus looked around, “he’s never been the punctual type.”

“So this is one of his merchant ships, correct?” Maxillus pointed at the ship’s hull. “Doesn’t it seem rather strange to you that it’s immaculate? There’s not even a scorch mark on it.”

“Well, Dexius does own it,” Markus coughed. “Rumor has it that the minute the dragon war broke out he had it moved to a safer location.” Markus bent in close, “I hear that it’s the stealthiest ship in the port.”

“Then pray he graces us with his luck.”

“Are you sure you want to go through with this?” Markus eyed his Master guardedly before he continued. “Do you think he’s coming late on purpose? Perhaps he got the wind of what you’re planning?”

“He has surprised me many times before, but I doubt that’s it.” Maxillus chewed on his lower lip, something he did when he had no other choice but to wait. “He’d better loan me his ship. After all, we’ve been through since landfall. Risking our careers to ensure the colonists thrive. He came here to set up trade, while I came here to protect its citizens. After all this time here I’ve come to think of him as a brother in the Senate. This is not the day to lose faith in a close friend.”

“Dexius is a friend to no one,” Markus sniffed. “The only friend that man has is the tightly knotted string that keeps his coin bag shut.”

“That’s rather harsh, Markus. Considering that he’s with the merchant guild, and with them, on our side, our people can start rebuilding. Bringing every island we colonized back to its former glory.” Maxillus looked at Markus, “I do rather miss the convenience of warm and cold running water.” He added, “That plus electricity.”

“I can’t say if Dexius is a man of his word or not,” Markus shrugged, “but my gut says he’ll-”

“That’s enough Markus,” Maxillus waved his hand, “I’ve made my decision and even you can’t intervene in my will.”

“Of course, your Emperorship, forgive me,” Markus glared at someone behind Maxillus, his hand lingering over his sword handle.

“What is it, Markus?”

Markus nodded for Maxillus to turn. From behind them, Dexius (a man of vast girth) waddled up, panting for breath. Behind him peered two indentured, lanky sly-eyed boys. Markus scowled at the two little weasels that had accompanied their rat of an employer. To Markus, they were just another bunch of dirty little thieves that had managed to keep their fingers intact.

“I’m here, your Lordship,” Dexius gasped, “I received news of your departure and barely had time to leave. I fear I may have injured my horse and damaged my coach just by trying to get here on time. Those treacherous roads on the way, they must be fixed.”

Maxillus extended his hand and without hesitation Dexius bent to kiss the ring on his Lordship’s finger, as a sign of his devotion to Emperor Maxillus. “Please my Emperor, forgive my lateness.”

“Then, may I suggest you take my carriage back with you when I depart?” Maxillus beckoned his old friend closer to embracing him.

Dexius raised an eyebrow, “taking a little trip, are you? What about those horrible dragons out there just looking for trouble? What’s so important that you must travel by sea?”

The Emperor smiled. He took Dexius by the shoulders and bent close enough to whisper in his ear. “My old friend, I’m needed elsewhere, and if I’m unable to attend, we shall again be at the mercy of the dragons.”

Dexius gave him a sly look, “it’s because of that accursed runt dragon, isn’t it? Now, what story has he told you to get you all ready to sail away from your duties?”

“Oh, you speak of Amakhu! Why, yes, of course! I find that amusing that you should know of that.” Maxillus motioned Sergius over. As the adviser approached the two, he opened a scroll case. Inside lolled a rolled scroll bound tight by a red ribbon and a hard wax seal. The seal depicted a lion’s head, an imprint from the Emperor’s own ring.

“I heard rumors that you left with Amakhu in the dead of night, and that both of you had left the island together on that accursed beast of his. You had been gone for so long, the Senate and I worried you might not return. So I visited the altar of Saint Constantine. There, on my knees, I prayed for your safe return.” Dexius opened his arms to embrace his friend, “now here you are ready to leave again?”

Interesting… Markus thought but remained silent.

“I had no idea someone had witnessed my departure so closely in which they patiently awaited my return. I left rather suddenly with no intent to alarm anyone.” The Emperor eyed the two boys that had accompanied Dexius. They squirmed under his gaze. What do you know? He thought with a smirk; Dexius has little spies watching my place. “So tell me, dear Dexius, how is Stratagasca this time of year?”

“I don’t think that you requested me to come all this way for an idle conversation. You need my services.”

“Business as usual, I see,” Maxillus took the scroll from Sergius and handed it to Dexius. “You haven’t changed a bit, old friend. You would rather barter than palaver.”

“I’ve known you long enough to—” He accepted the scroll, broke its seal so he could read it. “What’s this? A decree you need me to present to the Senate?” He scrolled it open to read it. “I swear Maxillus you spend too much time being a diplomat when you could just as easily ask me as a friend.”

“I called you here to offer you a higher position in the Senate, in exchange for your eternal gratitude.”

Dexius read over the scroll, and he then glanced up at Maxillus as if his friend had lost his mind. “What manner of madness is this? You want me to represent your family until Janus becomes of age, coach him so he can become Emperor?”

“That’s correct,” Maxillus nodded, “you can be his official guardian, but I’ll have Sergius here mentor him until Janus becomes the age of ascent.”

“Well, obviously you’re not dying—or insane…” Dexius stole a glance at his friend. “So what’s with this new position and discussing your son’s future welfare? What’s going on?”

“Careful…” Markus spoke from behind. “Remember who you’re talking to, Dexius.”

“Now don’t fret, it’s just a preliminary procedure before I leave. Just think of the new position as payment, plus for borrowing your merchant ship.” Maxillus gave Dexius a disarming smile.

“I don’t know what to say,” Dexius was flabbergasted. He looked to his two spindly cronies as they too reflected his surprise.

“I mean, if you don’t return, perish the thought, will I have to adopt him as my own son? Would I have to move into your Estate with my family?” Dexius’ arched an eyebrow. “I mean, I would if you ordered me to, of course.”

“No,” Maxillus dismissed the notion, “nothing as extreme as that. You’ll just represent Janus in the Senate until he’s of age to become Emperor.”

“So,” Dexius perked up, “that would take years — many long years before the child is ready. After all, Janus is barely able to talk, or even sit upright, let alone…” he hesitated, calculating his friend, “Wait a second: tell me that you’re planning on returning?”

“I plan to, but let’s be sensible, this is just a precaution—just in case I don’t—return.” Maxillus opened his arms. “Besides, didn’t you say many times that you longed for a higher position in the Senate? Just present that document to the Senate. You’ll go an Aedile in charge of resources and goods, to a Praetor of Stratagasca. You’ll be the richest guildsmen in the Senate.”

“You’ll do all of this just so your son becomes the Emperor when he comes of age? So you can go traveling around in my merchant ship to do what? Find yourself? Didn’t the dragon war quench your thirst for adventure? I know it did for me.”

“Not so,” The Emperor slapped his friend on the back, as they took a little walk down the dock. Behind them, Dexius’ two lackeys followed, while behind them, the Captain of the guards followed, his hand on the hilt of his sword. The Emperor’s guards stood around, vigilant as ever. Sergius followed close behind Maxillus like a shadow.

Maxillus paused to breathe in the cold sea air. “Do you remember the time we met?” The Emperor recollected the day they came to the planet, their ship’s landing had been far enough from the battle, but they still had to go through Hell to reach the capital. “How we said that we’d make this world ours? You were going to start a business empire here, while I’d help my uncle defend our land against the dragon threat?”

“I do remember it well. We trekked towards the city capital as the dragons laid siege to it. What a bloody disaster. I still have nightmares about it. A month later of our arrival your uncle lost his life to that behemoth dragon. A shame really—I rather liked him. Then Sergius shows up at the bunker with that damn ring you’re now wearing, then goes and presents you to the Senate as the next Emperor.”

“That’s correct…” Maxillus tilted his head, “I did not realize that it bothered you so much, but why?”

“Why you ask? Because imperialism has been a tradition in this backward world long before the dragons came. Since the dragons removed us of our technology, we’ve flung right back to the ancient days of Rome. Back when Constantine had taken his armies, his religion, and conquered the known world. That era is long gone, but it seems alive and well here. I’m tired of this damned backward planet. Back on Earth we had education, medical advancement, machinery—and all the amenities of a comfortable life! Now we are almost the only ones left that remember our spacefaring ways.”

“Honestly, I hadn’t thought of it that way. I rather enjoyed their simple ways as well as their customs. I found their shrines and holistic practices—quaint.”

“Yeah, maybe you’re amused by it, but I’m used to a lavished lifestyle. I miss the convenience of the more developed world’s offer for people in our position. I miss hot and cold running water, central heating…” Dexius shifted uncomfortably. “Hell, I even miss the security measures they had.” He glanced back at Markus with disgust, “If you ask me if it weren’t for that damn dragon taking your uncle’s life you’d be the Captain of his Guards.” He nodded in Markus’ direction, “instead of that half-wit. He’s been in the wild for so long he should be on a bloody leash.”

“Markus?” The Emperor laughed, “He’s okay. I’ll admit that he lacks leadership, but he compensates it with loyalty. Plus, I need his skills where I’m heading.”

“Okay, so this isn’t just some early midlife crisis of yours. I get it; you’re off to do something dragon-related, right? Something about that little secret trip you took overseas, or else you wouldn’t be asking me to represent your family in the Senate.”

“I must say Dexius that I’m still confounded about how you come to know about that? The only person that knew was Sergius.”

“There’s power in knowledge, Maxillus. Now that’s something those stupid dragons don’t have.”

“I disagree, my old friend. Those stupid dragons, I too had first thought were just wild animals. But that assumption had been proven wrong since I met Amakhu. Our trip together taught me what I needed to know. While I stayed briefly among them, I learned about their culture and their habits.” Maxillus drew closer to Dexius. “Although they have a crude society, they’re intelligent. They even share same passions as us. As we can, they express complex emotions like love, hate, grief—yes even sorrow. Like us, they have a language; thus they can learn. Their race is so diverse it boggles the mind. I found their laws too severe, yet they have an affinity, a passion for hoarding. Thus, you can trade and barter with them. It’s just unfortunate they saw us as a threat, but I shall change that opinion soon enough.”

“You sound so much like Celia before she…” Dexius stopped short. His eyes went wide with fear. “Oh my Lordship, I respectfully apologize! Forgive me for my trespasses!”

“You bastard!” Maxillus seethed. “No one, not even you, shall speak her name in my presence—ever. Why do you think I made it a punishable law?”

“My Emperor, y-you’re not serious, are you? I address you as a friend, not as some petty, novice adviser… or some insolent servant. We fought side by side. I-I’ve even bled for you. I-I have the scars to prove it.”

“Do we have a problem?” Markus leaned in wearing a cruel grin on his face. He then turned his attention to his Master, “your Emperorship?”

The two lads that scurried behind Markus abruptly stopped. They exchanged a confused look on their dirty faces. Sergius retreated to watch them from a distance. Tension filled the air.

Maxillus stopped the commotion as he held up his hand, “stand down,” he sighed. “This isn’t the time or place for a public whipping. Therefore, we shall reserve it for another time, possibly on my return.”

Dexius squirmed as he dabbed at his sweaty brow. Clearly the power of his position has gone to his head. He honestly believes that he is an Emperor with executive powers over life-and-death. That’s going to change and quick.

“As you wish, your Emperorship,” Markus smiled as he bowed. He would personally deal with Dexius’ for mentioning his Master’s dead wife. For everyone of the colonists knew that her lust for power had destroyed the Emperor’s love, and damn near the peace he sought for his people, so should anyone carelessly say her name in his presence (by law) it led to a public whipping.

“I-I meant no disrespect,” Dexius continued to dab at the sweat on his bow.

“I know, Dexius, but her betrayal still wounds me.”

Dexius extracted a flask of his favorite drink from his tattered leather jacket. “Perhaps this will help ease things between us? It’s from my private distillery.”

“How I wish truth didn’t hurt so much. I was a fool back then, but now I am conflicted. I must do something dire to save my people. I did not need a reminder of my failed marriage to set me off. I am sorry in turn for being so irritable, so preoccupied with what I must do.”

“Maxillus,” Dexius pressed ever so gently. “Tell me, what have you agreed to? What did you promise?”

The Emperor took the flask from Dexius. He took a deep swig before giving it back with a shrug. “I did what I had to do, to save my people. I gave them my word, so now, on my honor, I cannot evade it even if I could.”

“You speak as if you are going to do something ridiculous. Like challenging a dragon in a duel…” Dexius looked shocked by the revelation, “-just to save our people? That’s a bit melodramatic even for you.”

“There’s still a chance I could return victorious.”

“Why do I have a problem believing that?”

“Well, I do have to fight a dragon for the honor of my people. It’s not everyday that you get to fight a dragon single-handedly.”

“Then pray it’s not a big one,” Dexius sniffed, “after all—they do come in different shapes and sizes.”

“I suspect I don’t have much say in that. There’s a renegade dragon that refuses to return to the dragon realm, terrorizing the coastline. I cannot allow that to continue.”

“So, why exactly for, do you need my merchant ship? You should go in a fighting vessel instead. Blow the creature to bits—end of story.”

“Unfortunately, the dragons have either crippled, or destroyed every war vessel we got. But sources say your ship is the fastest in the fleet.” Maxillus gestured to the ship behind them. “Plus, I have at least a day left to set-up camp to challenge the dishonorable beast.”

“Fine, But if I agree to your terms, could you bring her back unscathed?”

“I intend to, old friend.” Maxillus turned to face Dexius, “does this mean you’ll accept my offer?”

“I’d be crazy not to accept,” Dexius held Maxillus by the shoulders. “Do what you must, old friend. Challenge the beast that terrorizes your people and may you return victorious.”

CHAPTER III

The merchant ship sailed headed towards the rendezvous point Amakhu had mapped out for Maxillus to follow. They dropped anchor before the small, remote islet just far enough from the mainland so there was nothing around them but the open sea. Overhead, a blanket of gray clouds parted in spots where rays of blinding sunlight shined through. Maxillus stood on the foredeck squinting, trying to catch his thoughts. After a few minutes of self-reflection, he turned to see both Sergius and Markus staring at him, as if he were someone they had heard of but hadn’t met. Their shared look of worry touched him. Maxillus smiled at the thought of them, worrying about him. All this time, he thought, this was just a problem I had to deal with on my own; when in fact it involves them too. He wondered if they came this far to make sure… of what? He couldn’t say. Was it their loyalty he was seeing? Or simply, they would serve him to the end? That if he should lose the battle with the dragon, would they return to collect his body? Would they take him home for a lavished burial? Maxillus didn’t know, and a part of him didn’t want to. These two wouldn’t hesitate to follow my commands, because so long as I am their Emperor, my word is decree—it’s the law.

“You both remind me of the two hounds I owned back on Earth,” He smirked as they approached. “On the day I had to go, they knew something was up, and the moment I went to leave, they tore through the place howling like wolves. It drove my poor mother insane…”

“Loyalty has a hefty price,” Sergius spoke up, “but without it—I fear we’d all be…”

“Lost?” Maxillus walked towards them holding the rails so he would not fall over in front of his men. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been out at sea. I heard if we go far enough we might even face a sea monster or two.”

“True,” Sergius nodded. “There exist huge creatures native to this planet, other than the dragon species. This world is similar to Earth’s own early history, full of dinosaurs and other mammoth beasts. In my time traveling beyond our borders I’ve seen my share of them. I do believe because the air here is higher in oxygen than it is on Earth that’s what makes the creatures grow so massive. At first, you’d think we’re on a young world, but after I’ve discovered-”

“Please,” Maxillus placed his hand up, “save your story for later. We have more pressing business to attend to.”

Markus added, “Since arriving here we’ve been trying to construct a new Eden for us. You can’t tell me that don’t bode well with the dragons?”

“It’s our nature to expand beyond our limits.” Maxillus sighed. “For what we cannot tame, we’ll strive to conquer.”

“You don’t have to go through this alone, your Emperorship.” Markus puffed up his chest, “we still have time to head back, get a legion of men to fight in your honor.”

“You must understand that I do this to prevent further bloodshed between our species.” The Emperor thoughts drifted to little Janus at home. Speculating that he would be awake now, nestled in the arms of a doting wet nurse. Perhaps he’d even be crying for his father, as his hounds had, back when he lived on Earth.

“No Markus, the dragon Ishmet gave specific rules of honor his clan must obey. I do this so we have peace again. I alone must challenge the dragon to the death. Should I live or die in combat, the colonists shall continue in my honor.”

“Shouldn’t the blame go on the pyroalchemysts?” Sergius shook his head in disbelief. “If they hadn’t dishonored the dragons…”

Maxillus glared at Sergius, “Don’t pretend to me that your sympathies don’t align with that cursed religious group. Their exploitations on the dragon race happened long before I arrived. In fact it’s what started the damn war. Now I must put my life up as a bargaining chip to save what’s left of our people.” He then added, “Including my own son’s future.”

“I sometimes wonder,” Markus spoke up, “if we’re the last of the human race? I mean, since the Bax virus on Earth, is our colony all that remains? Did other colonies across the explored galaxy survive the outbreak?”

“I doubt many Earthlings, apart from us survived. The Bax virus extended far beyond our home world, it spread into the galaxy on starfaring ships and infected travelers.” Maxillus shuttered at the horrific pictures of those infected. “Luckily I left Earth before the virus had spread to what remained of the technology here.” He pulled up his sleeve to show the scars where his implants had been. “As a child, my family members abstained from cybernetics, I think more for religious reasons than anything. The blurring line between man and machine, they felt, was unnatural. Without implants in their bodies, some of them could still be alive. I did have some implants done, but they were nothing major. I had some biochips implanted under my skin for security reasons. But after learning how the virus spread, through the technology and eventually killing its user I had them all removed.”

“I remember you telling me this before,” Sergius noted the odd scars on his master’s flesh. “Luckily for us that none of the remaining colonists had such implants. The last dragon siege we had destroyed most of our remaining technology.”

“I hope you’re not suggesting the dragon invasions is a blessing in disguise?” Markus gave Sergius a hard look.

“Not so,” Sergius sounded annoyed. “We’re disconnected from the rest of the colonized worlds. For all we know… we could be the only remaining human race.”

Maxillus pulled his sleeve down. “Hence, there must be peace between us and the dragons if we’re ever to survive.”

CHAPTER IV

As the merchant ship dropped anchor, the crew started loading up the gear they would take to shore. Some camping equipment, food supplies, a few barrels of ale, and clean water onto the longboats. After the tents were all up, would the larger, more important cargo come to shore? The items Maxillus needed to conquer the beast living on the islet. In longboats, they rowed across the calm turquoise waters towards the shell white sandy shoreline. Maxillus had stayed quiet for most of the trip, watching on as creatures swum and scuttled across the thriving seafloor. He loved being on ships but hated boating. As a child, he wasn’t too fond of swimming either. So the second he sat down in the longboat, he began to sweat. He felt too exposed to whatever waited for him in the deep waters. His hand gripped tightly on the handle of his sword.

“Are you okay?” Markus looked genuinely concerned for his Emperor. “You look as pale as the moon.”

“I’m fine,” Maxillus tried to put on a brave a front, but his eyes kept on the creatures below them. Some of the crustaceans and fish were unlike anything he had ever seen before. For one thing, their sheer size terrified him. They looked like monsters from out of nightmares.

“Oh look over there, a sea scorpion!” Sergius leaned over the side, ever so careful not to tip the boat. “On Earth, they would be a distant ancestor of the crab and the scorpion.”

“That’s—incredible news,” the Emperor shut his eyes and swallowed. “But please, would you just sit still until we’ve reached the beach?”

“Oh! Look over there! It’s a cluster of Trilobites at the bottom feeding.” Sergius leaned over just enough to get the Emperor leaning the opposite way. Maxillus Deliberated if whether he should kick his adviser overboard. Then maybe Sergius could have a better view from the bottom of the sea.

“Here,” Markus took out a flask from his jacket pocket, handing it to his Lordship. “I never learned to swim either.”

“Oh I know how to swim,” Maxillus took a long deep drink. He coughed at the burning sensation. “I’m just not much good at staying afloat.”

Markus chuckled as he took back the flask, then he raised it up to his master before taking a swig. “This ain’t the watered-down crap Dexius shared with you. No sir.”

“What is it? Gunpowder mixed with gasoline?”

Markus shrugged as he held the flask up, “it’s a unique blend. I get it from a seller in the local market. It has a kick at first, but after a few sips, you can’t feel — well, anything at all. Not even your mouth.”

Sergius perked an eyebrow, “I can see it hasn’t made you blind yet, but I suspect it’ll make you go mad?”

“Don’t you know Sergius? I’m already crazy…” Markus snickered as he held the flask out for Sergius to try, but Sergius promptly rejected the offer. Markus shrugged off the offense and took a deep swallow before tucking it away.

“How many big creatures do you think are on the island?”

“You mean the native kind?” Sergius turned to his Master. “Before the dragon wars, this Island had cattle farmers and limestone miners, but afterwards—”

“You don’t think,” Markus crossed his arms, “that maybe some other predators have returned to the island?”

“If there’s a hungry dragon then there must be prey here for him to eat.” Maxillus looked to the rocky shoreline. “The last thing I want to be doing is fighting off the local predators here too.”

“Well,” Sergius paused in thought, “I doubt anything migrated here. A fair-sized dragon has an enormous appetite. Let’s say… people or a herd of cattle were still here; they wouldn’t last too long. I’d say this islet is barren of large animals. It would explain why the locals of other islets in the area had a similar massive winged dragon terrorizing them. This place would be its nest. But to go as far as spotted, the beast would have to be enormous. Something you don’t want to face alone.”

“This is where your skills at tracking come in,” Maxillus looked to Markus. “I want you to find its nest.”

“On a landmass, this small,” Markus rubbed his hands together, “it shouldn’t be a problem.” He boasted; “There won’t be an anthill I won’t know about.”

“Now if you find the nest,” Maxillus looked carefully at Markus. “Return to us immediately. Make sure you’re upwind so the thing can’t track you back to camp.”

“Oh don’t you worry, your Emperorship—tracking has been my specialty since I was twelve.”

Sergius looked to his master, “what if he just happens to stumble across the dragon instead?”

Maxillus rubbed his temples, “If you can evade the beast, hurry back to tell me where it was. Then all of you are to evacuate this islet. Get as far as you can on the ship. I don’t want any unnecessary heroism for my sake. Remember, this is my fight—not yours.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Markus stretched out a yawn.

“Good.” He looked to Sergius, “The last thing I want to do is dishonor a dragon’s pride or we will all pay the price.”

Sergius moped, “this isn’t exactly the favorable day to be doing this.”

Maxillus looked at his adviser, “what makes you say that?”

“Well, I read it in my chicken bones this morning.”

“The only unfavorable day I know of,” Markus chortled, “was that chicken’s last day.”

Maxillus rolled his eyes heavenwards. I can honestly say I’m guided by the advice of fools.

CHAPTER V

As they approached alongside the bleached sandy shoreline with the boat, Markus pointed to the one person Maxillus was happy to see again: Amakhu, the runt dragon. He kept his promise to see Maxillus off on his noble quest to challenge the dragon. The thing was, he spooked others in the group. He looked so damn offsetting with his crocodilian features. That long snout fitted with jagged teeth of his. That scaly brown-green hide with those cruel reptilian eyes of his. Amakhu spoke like a human. He even dressed a bit like a clergyman with that robe of his. However, his appetites were nothing less than disturbing.

“Ah, I see that your scaly friend is early,” Markus bumped Maxillus.

“Is that Amakhu?” The Emperor squinted. “What on Earth is he doing by the shoreline?”

“By Saint Constantine the Great!” With a hand to his mouth, Sergius stifled a gag. “Did he just swallow that poor creature whole?”

“Without a doubt,” Maxillus whistled loud; he waved for the runt dragon’s attention, “that’s Amakhu.”

As the boat sailed closer, Amakhu fidgeted with his appearance. To ensure he was presentable by those horrified by his appetite for live prey. After a few seconds of preening himself, Amakhu hurried over to address Maxillus as his boat delved deeper into the sandy shoreline.

“Oh dear,” Amakhu fretted; “I didn’t think that you would be so early getting here.” He smacked his mouth (he barely had any lips, so it appeared as if he had been chewing on something) then he burped out an unpleasant smell. Possibly the little animal he had just choked down.

“That poor little-” Sergius gagged, “what were you eating over by the cattails?” He stayed a distance from Amakhu.

“Just a little morning snack to take on the day.” The runt dragon gave Sergius a full-toothed smile.

“What’s he doing now?” Sergius pointed at Amakhu’s face.

“He’s trying to smile,” Maxillus pointed out. “Still hasn’t mastered it yet I see.”

“Don’t think he has enough facial muscles for it,” Markus added.

“Well he should stop then,” Sergius distanced himself a little further from Amakhu. “I find it rather disturbing.”

“I wonder,” Markus crossed his arms, “have you ever eaten something larger? Like, say, a human or perhaps dragon-sized creature?”

Amakhu crossed his scrawny arms, “What exactly are you implying? Don’t confuse my eating habits to that of a carrion-eater; I eat live bait.”

“Uh,” Markus pointed at Amakhu’s long tapered snout, “You’ve got a piece of furry meat… dangling from your mouth there.”

Sergius gagged as he turned away.

“Amakhu, my men are just going to set up camp over there,” Maxillus pointed to where rest of his men headed. “We should take a little walk together.”

“But you said—” Markus sputtered, “you just told me to scout out where the nest is; or if there were even other threats to interfere with your mission?”

“B-but I wasn’t done eating.” Amakhu fretted more.

“Well, I’ve changed my plan. Sergius assured me there’s nothing else here, or the dragon would’ve eaten it. Besides, we have some catching up to do.” The Emperor slapped Amakhu on the back. “Now, that my little traveling friend is here.” Maxillus looked up at Markus. “As much as I trust you’re tracking skills, I know Amakhu is far better at it. Sorry Markus, you’re my Captain of the Guards now. So ensure everything’s ready on my return.”

“But your Lordship…” Markus blurted, “It could be a trap!”

“Nonsense,” the Emperor smiled down on Amakhu, “you have your orders, Markus.” His voice softened as he addressed his friend. “Good to see that you made it here in time Amakhu.”

“Yes, your Lordship, you too.” Amakhu waved goodbye as they headed down the beach, towards the dense forest. Markus gave Amakhu an uncomfortable, hateful glare. “We won’t be long—I promise.”

“So,” Maxillus smirked, “are you going to make it? Or shall I carry you back to the caravan?”

“No, I should be fine, Amakhu’s stomach moaned loud. “Well,” the runt dragon rubbed his grumbling stomach, “I could get something to eat along the way. On condition, you don’t watch me.”

“All right Amakhu, have it your way.” He chuckled. “I give you my words, to give you some privacy.”

CHAPTER VI

Maxillus followed Amakhu as he stuck to the coastal area. They hurried through a field of wild grasses, hoping they’d go unnoticed. Once they stopped at a shallow brook (Amakhu devoured some fish trying to head upstream to mate) then followed along the winding stream that led them deep into the surrounding forest. After a few miles of trudging uphill, they came upon a limestone hill that had a freshly excavated cave on the side of it. What’s more, on it were these large, deliberately placed, slash marks that warned other dragons to stay clear. Then there came the telltale scorch marks that covered the limestone quarry as well as withered the surrounding foliage. This suggested the work of a fire-breathing aerial dragon. The air nearest to the nest reeked of rotten charred meat. Scattered among the piles of ash, were mounds of gnarled bones of varying shapes and sizes. Flies buzzed around the leftovers like swooning buzzards.

“Is this it, isn’t it?” Maxillus whispered, “This is where the dragon lives?”

“Yeah,” Amakhu nodded as his eye were wide, they were full of freight. “It’s the nest of a Bone Collector, possibly even, belonging to a Reaper Dragon.” It was exactly the nest Ishmet had told him to look out for to make contact. He shuddered.

“What are you doing?” Maxillus hissed, “We should head back. I must get my armor. My gear…”

Amakhu shook his head and tugged them to the opening. “That’s not the rules of conduct. First, you must challenge him.”

“Him?”

“It could be a she, or even both.” Amakhu shrugged, “does it matter what gender it is?”

“I see your point.” He stood beside the runt dragon.

“Osoroshī?” Amakhu hissed up at the cave’s entrance, “Osoroshī, are you in there?”

No answer.

“Yoo-hoo! I know you’re in there. I can hear you breathing!” From his robe pocket Amakhu took out an embroidered, white silk hanky, and then frantically waved it in the air for a response. “Come on, Osoroshī! Come on out!”

“Hey,” Maxillus hissed, “you took that from my place—you little thief.”

“It was a souvenir.”

The Emperor crossed his arms and shook his head in disgust. “Unbelievable… back home it would be five lashes in the public square for stealing from me.”

“This isn’t the place, or the time to discuss this.”

“Well, I beg to differ,” He tore the handkerchief out of Amakhu’s hand, and tucked it into his shirt pocket.

Amakhu turned on the Emperor, “you’d have me whipped? You said I was your friend?”

“That was before I found out that you stole from me-” Maxillus began just as a billowing fiery smoke burped out of the cave entrance.

“What is that racket?” A dark, groggily voice echoed out. “And—what is that I smell? Is that a runt dragon? I haven’t smelled one since the dragon revolt.”

Something massive started to slither deep in the earth.

From the pitch-dark cave, Osoroshī’s head poked out. The creature’s eyes glowed like the pale moonlight. Its stark, chilling brilliance made the two fools want to run away—to hide, but they stood their ground. As the dragon poked his head out, Amakhu fell flat on his back. Looking up, the runt dragon gasped in awe as Osoroshī’s large head loomed over them.

Maxillus stood silently as the beast made its entrance. To Amakhu, the Emperor looked heroic, but too petrified to move. By Constantine’s Epic Crusade, He trembled, this dragon is so massive—it’s unconquerable! My sword won’t be enough to penetrate that monster’s hide. His heart sunk at the thought of not returning home victorious.

Osoroshī flicked his tongue just above the two. His eyes peered down at them. “Oh look what the runt dragon brought along for dessert—a human.” Osoroshī lifted his thin lips to give the Emperor a toothy smile. It wasn’t as nice as Amakhu’s smile; it had a cold look to it—so full of cruel intentions.

“I-I called on you Osoroshī!” Amakhu moved back and his legs wobbled. He felt faint. Osoroshī proved to be much bigger than he had thought.

“It is but a little snack,” Osoroshī darted his forked tongue at Amakhu. “I guess today’s my lucky day.”

Amakhu quickly gathered his wits, pushed up off the hard ground, “Osoroshī! I come in the name of Ishmet!” He started to search through his robe pockets as fast as his joints would allow. “And I-”, He searched through his pockets, “have something here…from him—”

“Bah!” Osoroshī scoffed, “that old fossil?” As he drew closer his mouth opened, showing off his tightly spaced razor teeth. “He holds no power over me.”

“Wait!” Amakhu held up a hand, “wait! Wait!” He stepped back, mindful not to stumble over anything in his way.

“Oh don’t worry, it won’t hurt much,” the dragon gave Amakhu a wicked smile, “in fact, I promise your death shall be as quick as lightning.”

“Then, I’m afraid you’ll never get the message from the dragon leader honoring you for your deeds against humankind!” Amakhu then extracted from one of his many robe pockets a small tinted glass jar, then twisted it open. He cringed as the Dragon’s tongue snaked around his waist. The thick robe acted as a barrier against the poison that resided in its tongue. The robe’s material, however, soaked it up like a sponge. Soon Amakhu’s own scaly hide would start to react with an itchiness that would drive him mad. Then, it would fester; then it would begin to burn.

As Osoroshī delighted in Amakhu’s discomfort, Maxillus’ hand casually slid the handle of his sword.

Amakhu had mere seconds to jam his two fingers into the jar before he’d start to feel the effects of the poison. The nemomataglots clung to him as he pulled them out and flung the glistening knot of worms high into the air. In midair, the worms crawled into their assigned position, each one uniting to form a message for the dragon, glowing as bright as the morning sun.

Osoroshī resigned his hold on Amakhu, turned his head from the blinding light. He cursed at the light as it died away. He then slowly opened his eyes, looked back and snorted.

The ethereal worms hung in the air as if stuck on a sheet of glass. They formed into a formal glowing message addressed to Osoroshī from the Leader of the Dragon Clan.

“I am, but a distasteful nibble, great Osoroshī,” Amakhu labored for breath. “But what you see before you is a message from Ishmet himself. It says that a human has come forth to challenge you.”

“What fool would dare to challenge me?” The great dragon’s eyes settled on the human that accompanied the little runt dragon. Osoroshī after first chuckled low, then his laughed rose higher as the message Ishmet sent dissolved away. “I could just eat the both of you and end this now.” He flicked his tongue at them.

The nemomataglots that held in the air had squiggled back into confines of Amakhu’s open jar.

Amakhu methodically sealed the jar then tucked it away into one of his pockets. He shuffled closer to Osoroshī, thankful thus far without being eaten.

Osoroshī glanced down on the runt dragon, “Tell me more of this challenger.”

Amakhu looked to Maxillus and elbow bumped him to go forwards. Maxillus’ face took on a stern, hard look before he stepped up to speak.

“My name is Emperor Maxillus Tullius. The cluster of islands you’ve made into a hunting ground is under my protection. I’m the leader of my people, just as Ishmet is your leader and the leader of all dragons.”

Osoroshī squinted at the muscular human. He was unlike the fishermen he tormented up and down the coastal islands. They were helpless to his terrible wraith. Could this one put a stop to his rampage? Unlikely. The thought of fighting a petty human in the name of honor would be painfully simple to a dragon of his abilities. When he could easily fight a legion of men and slip away unharmed. He had hoped for something more—challenging.

“Few things prove a threat to me. You don’t strike me as one of them.”

Maxillus bared his teeth, his hand on the handle of his sheathed sword. The dragon dares to mocks me?

Amakhu cleared his throat, “Emperor Maxillus begged Ishmet to spare his kin. He has even agreed to sacrifice his own life in exchange for the life of his people. He seeks to end the dragon war.”

“He is either a week coward for peace, or he is just an idle fool.” Osoroshī spat out, “war has been nothing but beautiful, its chaos is divine!”

“I promise you, he is heroic,” Amakhu started to pace, “a challenge to defeat I assure you.”

“You’re not a Pyromyst are you?” The dragon asked Maxillus hopefully. “You won’t try and steal my powers for your own will you, human?”

Maxillus spoke up. “I am the Emperor – a leader among my kin. I was the one that got rid of them during the war to make way for peace.”

“That’s a real shame,” Osoroshī pondered playfully; “I wanted a real challenge. So far this deal just sounds a little — one-sided.” He eyed Amakhu, then Maxillus. “If I do agree to this pathetic deal, what’s in it for me?”

“Osoroshī,” Amakhu warned, “Ishmet has declared peace and picked you to agree to represent the dragonkin. I was sent here to get you to take the challenge and fight in our honor.”

“Bah!” Osoroshī spat out, “No mortal man can defeat me.”

“Don’t be so sure,” Amakhu baited, “If I know anything about humans they’re resourceful, but they’re also cunning.”

“Well… humans have surprised me. In fact, there was this one time…”

“Pardon me but…” Amakhu held up his hand, “so you’ll do it?”

“I shall,” Osoroshī’s eyes brightened again, and his tongue darted out of his mouth. “I shall grind him to a salty paste.”

Amakhu shared an uncomfortable look with Maxillus.

“That’s great,” Amakhu started to distance himself from Osoroshī, but the dragon’s eyes intently followed his every move. “I’ll just get going so that I can tell Ishmet that you accept the challenge and the conditions.”

“Why to leave so soon?” Osoroshī tilted his massive head, “when we can do it now?”

Osoroshī tongue shot out. Maxillus shoved Amakhu aside. Then slipped his blade upwards, slashing the tip of Osoroshī’s tongue off. Steaming hot dragon blood sprayed everywhere, burning all it touched. Maxillus had managed to turn away, but not before the searing hot liquid scorched his back. The leather jacket he wore on the cold trip over had barely protected him from the heat. He screamed out in pain as he distanced himself from the spray of the beast’s blood.

Amakhu, on his back, watched in awe. As the blood sprayed erratically from the wound, he scurried backward over the bone garden. Something heavy flopped down in front of his feet. Curiously he peeked over his clawed feet. Among a litter of bones lay Osoroshī’s severed blue tongue. It flopped about like a dying fish.

“Yuck!” Amakhu said in an utter revulsion as he kicked it away from him.

Osoroshī howled so loud, echoing through the forest. The beast wriggled in utter pain. It bashed against the cave walls. The beast hurried to scramble for the exit. As the dragon thrashed in pain, it smashed its body against the limestone walls. At first, the slabs of stone cracked, but then they buckled, caving in on top of Osoroshī’s body; pinning the beast down so it could not move. As Osoroshī struggled to pull himself free, more slabs of limestone overhead split free, slapping down from above. All the while Osoroshī writhed in pain as the rubble enveloped him. A blast of rock dust rushed outwards coating everything in a fine ocher powder.

“Maxillus!” Amakhu stood, waving away the limestone dust in the air. “That was-”

“Unexpected?”

“Well yes-” Amakhu nodded. “But moreover, quite heroic of you.”

The Emperor grimaced as he sheathed his sword, his back still burned from the beast’s blood. “I must admit, I was unsure I could even beat that beast, but now… I might still succeed in my quest. I could still defeat this terrible creature. Now I can finally free my people from the beast’s tyranny, plus put an ending this dragon war.”

“Oh you think that do you?” A muffled voice belonging to Osoroshī came from the surrounding mound of rubble. “I can assure you that shall not happen whilst I am still breathing.” He chuckled.

Amakhu looked from the rubble to the Emperor. “We should leave—now!”

Maxillus nodded as he looked at the massive pile of rubble, mulling over the idea of stabbing his sword through the mound of rocks, in hopes to inflict even more damage on the dragon. No, he hesitated, that would only make his opponent angrier.

“Go!” Osoroshī bellowed, “hide if you like, but remember this: I shall find you. Once I do—” The monster first started to laugh, but then began to cough from all the stone dust he had just breathed in.

“Let’s go.” The Emperor grabbed Amakhu by the arm as they hurried into the surrounding forest, “before I do something stupid.”

CHAPTER VII

They scurried away through the surrounding forest and didn’t stop until they were a safe distance from Osoroshī’s nest. Maxillus collapsed on a massive lichen-covered boulder. There he slowly removed his jacket. His face reflected the pain he felt.

“You been burned by Osoroshī’s blood?”

Maxillus opened on eye and nodded. His face was even a little burnt, but not as bad as his back was.

Amakhu tsked as he went through his robe pockets to take out a healing salve. “For some odd reason, most true dragons that are fire breathers have hot blood that borders on being acidic.”

“I wouldn’t’ve guessed.” Maxillus held up what remained of his leather jacket. The back area the blood splashed got eaten away.

“Here,” the runt dragon went to approach the Emperor. “This should help.”

Just then, from behind a large tree, Markus grabbed Amakhu from behind. He leveled his knife just under the runt dragon’s throat.

“Markus?” Maxillus had the sword in his hand. “What is this? Have you lost your mind?”

“W-what are you doing?” Amakhu gurgled.

“Shush,” Markus hissed as he pushed the sharp end of the blade up under the runt dragon’s throat. “You took my Master to see the dragon he had to challenge. Are you that thick in the head runt dragon? You almost got him killed.”

Amakhu gagged, “I had no intention…”

“Markus!” Maxillus commanded, “Sheath your blade, and release Amakhu! Do it—now!”

“You lie!” Markus spoke through clenched teeth. “I followed along to make sure you wouldn’t try something stupid, but after I saw that… monster.” His voice cracked, “so horrific to behold. I-I couldn’t do anything. I mean, I wanted to help, b-but I was so… scared. I never felt that way before. Usually when I track them as younglings…”

“Markus?” Maxillus wore a look of concern. “I know how scary it must’ve felt for you. It’s okay. I too felt scared, but look, we got out unscathed. Sure my back is a little burned, but Amakhu—he initially didn’t known where the dragon’s lair was. So just, put down your dagger.”

“No, you don’t understand…” Markus let Amakhu go as he sheathed the dagger. “That creature is too powerful for one person to fight. I heard the stories of how it tormented the coastal folk. How it roasted them alive while they sat in their boats. It doesn’t hunt humans down to eat. Nor does it kill for moral reasons. The beast simply does so because it can, and because it enjoys it.”

“I know…” Maxillus softly said as he approached Markus. “I promise you that I shall deal with it when the time comes.”

“Markus is right, though,” Amakhu touched his throat, “Osoroshī has no honor. When nightfall comes, he’ll come for us.”

“Then we must ensure that I’m prepared for his attack, yes?”

“Have you both gone mad?” Markus pointed to the direction they had just come from, “that dragon’s head is one of the biggest I’ve ever seen. Who knows how big the rest of it was? Besides, even if a legion of men were to go up against it, they’d fail. It’s so damn massive; it’s just too overwhelming to consider going up against it alone.”

“It is a male.” Amakhu rebutted.

“Huh?” Markus made a face. “What is?”

“Osoroshī,” Amakhu at first paused to let it sink in. Then he found that he had to explain, “That dragon you keep referring to as an ‘it’. But it’s a male dragon. Plus, his name is Osoroshī—he’s a bone collector; a trait most common to male dragons.”

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“By saying the male dragon is a bone collector, I mean that it does, in fact, kill for sport. So I agree with your analogy. It’s just rare that this one happens to be a lone wolf. Usually, they are known to lead other dragons into war, or they come with a mate. Osoroshī has done neither.”

“Well that’s good, right?” Markus was looking for approval, “because this one’s enough for all of us to handle.”

“Neither you, nor I, nor anyone else — will challenge Osoroshī,” Amakhu indicated, “this is between Maxillus and Osoroshī.”

Maxillus remembered an age old psalm from his younger years in training, “tis Better that I die gloriously in battle than to buckle under the burden of old age.”

CHAPTER VIII

High above a forested plateau, the trio hid behind a tight coverage of trees and forest growth. Watching the valley below as Osoroshī arose from the limestone rubble. They stood upwind so the dragon wouldn’t smell them, or come looking for them. The surrounding autumn foliage provided plenty of coverage for them to stay hidden from view.

“Where’s that sound coming from?” Markus whispered as he looked around.

“Huh?” Amakhu turned to look at him, from his mouth dangled a rodent tail.

“Must you do that now?” Markus hissed in anger.

“But I’m hungry.”

“What’s he doing now?” Maxillus faced the valley where Osoroshī’s nest had been at the clearing bellow.

“He’s eating again,” Markus complained.

“No I mean Osoroshī down there.”

“Well,” Markus shuffled through a pile of autumn leafs. “It looks like he’s burrowing a new hole to hide in.”

“A nest,” Amakhu came over to point out the obvious. “He’s burrowing a new nest to rest in.”

“Why,” Maxillus turned to Amakhu, “would he do that now?”

“Osoroshī’s nocturnal. He hunts between the hours of dusk and dawn. His kind hates the daylight hours.”

“Then we better head back to camp,” Markus prompted. “We’ve lingered long enough to make sure he wasn’t going to track us.”

“But my Caravan is over that ridge.”

“Come back with me Maxillus,” Markus smiled, “let Amakhu go back to his caravan and leave for good. We’ll return with your best men to deal with this abomination as it slumbers.”

“There’s no honor in that,” Amakhu retorted.

“Maxillus shouldn’t have to risk his life on that monster alone. You can agree that you were both lucky to get out alive.”

“But he promised Ishmet that he would,” Amakhu stressed. “I dare not go back and lie to my Master. He’ll see through it, and the war would continue.”

Markus drew his dagger, “not if you’re dead.”

“What do you think you are doing?” Maxillus grabbed Markus’ arm, “murdering the messenger will not resolve it.”

Markus pulled away, “You have any other suggestions?”

“I know that murder isn’t the answer.” Maxillus stood back from his Captain of the Guards, “there are alternatives we’ve never considered. We’re a human race rich in culture that cannot continue going forth to new worlds trying to conquer them, by forcing our will on their ways. Now we have a chance to work together on a solution for peace.”

Markus crossed his arms, “you embrace that theory Maxillus. I saw what you have to face. Osoroshī doesn’t seek peace; his goal is in our extinction.”

Maxillus looked to Amakhu, the last of his kind. His people destroyed by the dragons during an internal revolt. But his species weren’t warriors, but artisans, clerics, travelers, architects—they did nothing to deserve their ill-gotten fate. Instead of praise for their passive nature, they died in utter agony. Maxillus came to this planet as a warrior to save his people, but once he rose to Emperorship, he knew the only path to peace wasn’t in bloodshed. It lay in finding a common goal between both species. If the conflict between the dragons and the humans continued–it will lead to extinction. Ishmet had offered Maxillus an extreme solution to his problem. It wasn’t exactly what Maxillus had hoped for, but it was clearly a test to see how far he’d go for peace. How dangerous the Emperor was to unite both species once and for all. Dragons revered those that sacrificed themselves to save another.

It’s not a question of whether I win or lose—it’s a question of honor. If I must give my life to save others, I cannot just defeat Osoroshī in battle; I must be willing to forfeit my own life in doing so.

The answer slipped from Maxillus’ lips, “I might not be able to go home—even if I wanted to.”

“What? That’s absurd. Of course, you can.”

“Don’t you see? No one can win this challenge.” Maxillus bumped up against a tree. “If I win, there’ll be a dragon out there to seek Osoroshī’s honor. But If Osoroshī wins, he’ll stop at nothing until he destroys every human on this planet…”

Markus lifted his fist up. “Then I say we crush Osoroshī. We then ensure that no other dragon steps foot on these islands ever again.”

Maxillus shook his head. “No. The islands can only bear so much. Eventually, we’ll need to expand outwards. That could pose a future threat to the dragons. Perhaps that is why they had destroyed the runt dragons.” He looked at Amakhu.

“There’s a possibility I never considered,” Amakhu nodded. At one time my kind did outnumber the dragons. “Mind you, at the time most of the dragons had suffered from blood lust in the revolt, going on a rampage through the land. No one was exempt from their wrath.”

“So you see Markus,” Maxillus placed a hand on his Captain’s shoulder, “that is why I must do this. I do it so I may save our future legacy.”

“How do you even know that your self-sacrifice will have any effect on the dragons when they are a continent away?”

“Amakhu?” Maxillus turned to his guide. “I believe you have an answer to this?”

“True dragons share a bond. When they die, the others come to bring the corpse to a sacred place, to sleep with their ancestors. The ancient dragon race used to be the guardians of an even older race of beings.”

“Go on,” Maxillus prompted.

“I cannot speak of these Godlike creatures they guarded. Since they revolted against them, it’s even forbidden to say anything about the old ones.”

“Your race, did they serve these Gods too?”

“We did,” Amakhu shivered, “thus why I remain in debt to Ishmet for sparing my life.”

CHAPTER IX

Maxillus motioned for Amakhu to lead the way. “Amakhu and I are going to head for the caravan, so you must head back to our camp. Ensure that everything we planned will be ready for my inspection on my return. Have my servants ready to receive me the moment we touch the ground.”

“You’re Lordship?” Markus balked, “what do you mean?”

Amakhu turned to face Markus as he walked, “the caravan flies.”

“W-what? But that’s Impossible!”

“If you wait long enough you could’ve seen us fly by from over there.”

“Maxillus,” Markus fell to his hands and knees, “allow me to come along, to protect you with my life.”

Markus flinched as Maxillus spun around, his fist out.

“Open your eyes!” Maxillus’ fist stopped in front of the Captain’s face. “Tell me what do you see?”

Markus slowly opened his eyes to focus on Maxillus’ signet ring of a lion, the symbol of his Lord’s House.

Markus swallowed, “I see your family ring, the ring of an Emperor.”

“Then what am I to you?”

“You’re my Master,” Markus bowed, “my Emperor.”

“Then do as I will,” Maxillus looked hard, “or when I return to camp, I shall have you flogged.”

“Your will is decree. Forgive me—your Emperorship,” Markus bent to kiss the ring. Then, without a word, he stood to hurry into the surrounding forest.

Amakhu waited until Markus was out of earshot. “You’d even flog your Captain of the Guards for wanting to protect you?” Amakhu gave Maxillus a suspicious look. “You seem a little too eager give out such severe punishments for doing his duty.”

“Bah,” Maxillus scoffed, “my bark is far worse than my bite.”

“What does that mean?” Amakhu stopped. “You—bark?”

“I guess that you’ve never heard of that old saying,” Maxillus smirked, “it means I threaten, but I never go through with it. I tell people who don’t want to listen that I’ll flog or have them whipped, just to get them to listen. I’ve never gone through with it. Not like the former Emperor’s had.”

“But you threatened to have me whipped for stealing one of your handkerchiefs. You did that just to get me to listen to you?”

“Yeah about that,” Maxillus made a face. “I was just overreacting.”

“You think?”

“It’s just once we came into the quarry and I saw the big hole in the limestone I was a little-”

“Frightened?”

“Concerned,” Maxillus corrected.

“And now how are you feeling after facing Osoroshī?”

“Utmost concerned,” Maxillus wavered his hand in the air, “especially if he can just swallow me in one big gulp.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry too much about that.”

“Oh? Why is that?” Maxillus stopped.

“Osoroshī is a fire-breather. He’d charbroil you with his breath first.”

“That’s not what I needed to hear right now.”

“Well, I hope you have a plan.”

“Is surviving through this a plan?”

After a few minutes of trudging through the woods, Amakhu cleared his throat to speak. “There is something I should tell you,” The runt dragon stopped and turned to face the Emperor. “I knew where Osoroshī’s nest was. I just hoped that in bringing you along, the both of you would come to an understanding. I hoped that he’d just decide to leave the island; so that you wouldn’t have to fight him.”

“All this time you knew?” Maxillus didn’t know whether to scream or run up and choke the life out of the runt dragon. “You almost got us killed!” Maxillus slid out his sword. He swore aloud as he pointed the blade at Amakhu’s chest.

“That wasn’t my intent!” The squeamish runt dragon brought his arms up in fear.

“Of all the reckless-” Maxillus grimaced as he swung his sword into the side of a tree closest to Amakhu. He started to hack wildly at it. Wood splinters flew everywhere.

Flat on his stomach, Amakhu covered his eyes.

“I’m so sorry!” The rung dragon pleaded, “Take pity on me!”

After a few minutes of hacking at the tree, Maxillus stopped, flopped down beside Amakhu panting for breath.

“Why would you do that?” Maxillus turned to Amakhu.

“I couldn’t challenge Osoroshī for you. I just had to be present to represent Ishmet.”

The Emperor calmly brushed off the wood splitters from his lap. “I don’t think Osoroshī cared much for what Ishmet had to say anyways. That fiend doesn’t strike me as the formalities type. Something I can relate too.”

“Well…” Amakhu considered, “at least not until you severed his tongue off.”

“Blame my reflexes on that one. He looked at me like a giant toad measures up a juicy fly.”

“He did, didn’t he?” Amakhu nodded in agreement.

The Emperor bumped his head against a tree, “good thing Markus didn’t hear that you did this on purpose.”

“Why?”

“He’d make you into a pelt.”

“Yuck,” Amakhu sat up and dusted off his robe. “Not exactly the way I want to go.”

“Unfortunately, we don’t choose how we die,” Maxillus grunted as he pushed back up. He held his hand out for Amakhu to take so he could help the runt dragon up. “But at least we can choose how to live.”

CHAPTER X

“Here we are,” Amakhu came into the clearing. The forest leaves slowly fell around the caravan. Some of them had settled on the flat roof, so there was a large pile of leaves that needed clearing off. The Caravan looked homey in the afternoon light. The newly added trim, the bright autumn colors painted on the wood paneling to give it a fresh, new look. The little windows on either side had the outside shutter locked shut. All it needed was a stove pipe and cowl with a little smoke trail rising from the top.

“Is that the same caravan we took to see Ishmet?” Maxillus lagged behind Amakhu, kicking away at a pile of leaves and stepping over the exposed roots and the dead branches that were in his path. “It looks different than the last time.”

“Yup,” Amakhu started to kick away the leaves surrounding the caravan. “Needs a little more work and it will be perfect for longer travels.”

Maxillus drew close; his hand touched the side of it. “Even the paint on it looks pretty fresh.” He turned to Amakhu, “What’s left to do on it?”

“Oh just a few things,” Amakhu tsked, “At least now I can load here up with a ton of supplies and even get a whole person in there comfortably.”

“I wish you had thought of that before we took that trip together. It wasn’t exactly the most comfortable ride I’ve ever been on.” Maxillus thought back to when they left the island to visit Ishmet. “I must admit, though, it tested my patience. There had been moments I thought I was going to lose my mind with cabin fever. At least the windows made it feel less like solitary confinement.”

“A what-what?”

“A prison,” Maxillus pointed out, but was pretty sure Amakhu still didn’t understand what he was saying.

Just then Keppaku’s head peered out from behind the caravan. She languidly looked from Amakhu to Maxillus while she lazily munched away on a mouthful of foliage. Her hairless head and long neck were a scrunch of droopy, wrinkled skin. For years the squatback had been Amakhu’s beast of burden. Left to bear the weight of the caravan, plus the two of them added on. After first seeing her you would think she was fragile. Unable to hold even her own girth and size in the air, but her leathery wings were massive, and she could maneuver through the fiercest of storm clouds.

“I better get her into the harness so we can go.” Amakhu reached out to scratch her on the head as she cooed pleasantly.

All the while she chewed her cud, Keppaku kept staring at Maxillus.

“Does she still remember me?”

“Of course, she does,” Amakhu went to retrieve the harness, “she has a good memory for faces.”

“How old is she?”

“Oh she’s a few decades,” Amakhu called Keppaku over. The squatback hesitantly lumbered over, allowing the runt dragon to strap the leather harness around her. “Before we met, she lost the rest of her feathers.” Amakhu scratched his nails on her side. Flakes of dead skin came off. “Flying over the sea can be stressful on poor Keppaku.” He tsked, “She had such beautiful plumage too.”

“I’ve never seen a squatback until you showed up on one.”

Amakhu shrugged, “They’re not native to this region. On my distant travels, Keppaku came into my care as a hatchling. So I suspect that not many people in this region have even seen one.”

Maxillus watched as Amakhu started to move the squatback into position under the caravan. Getting Keppaku’s harness connected and secured. After a few minutes he looked over to the Emperor, “we’re ready to go.”

“Right,” Maxillus went to step up, but his boot stepped in something soft. He slowly looked down hoping that he hadn’t just stepped on Squatback feces (which to his relief, he hadn’t). He squatted before the squishy source. It was a pile of half-eaten rotting fruit which had fallen from the surrounding trees. He also noticed the squatback was acting a little clumsy, perhaps even, a tad drunk.

CHAPTER XI

The moment Keppaku (Amakhu’s beast of burden) had opened her winged appendages and took the caravan into the air Maxillus (who sat rigidly beside Amakhu) knew that he was in for the ride of his life. Keppaku started poorly from the outset. She staggered during take-off and had even struck a few trees as she lifted higher into the air. Maxillus hazarded a look to Amakhu for reassurance, but even the runt dragon, despite his reptilian appearance, looked a little too pale to be of any comfort. Amakhu struggled with the reigns; trying to prevent the squatback from slamming into a nearby tree, then narrowly missing the side of the high cliffs as they came around the bend.

“I think she’s drunk!” Maxillus shouted above the wind.

“That’s absurd!” Amakhu protested, trying desperately to keep his anger in check. “I think she smells Osoroshī, and it’s freaking her out. You might not be able to detect it, but his scent permeates the whole island. I’ve known some dragons to do that to claim their territory and warn the others off. But the thing is I’ve smelt him on other islands nearby. His hunting grounds are expanding. I think it’s because he has no one to challenge him.”

“I don’t know about that. She ate a lot of rotten fruit back there” Maxillus pointed out. “Are you familiar with the word: fermentation?”

“That’s a human word,” Amakhu chuckled, “isn’t it?”

“It’s a process of taking rotten fruit or grains, and making liquor out of them.” Maxillus pointed out. “It can intoxicate someone if they drink it. Or in Keppaku’s case: eats it.”

“So you’re saying my Keppaku is drunk?”

Maxillus shrugged, “She has been eating rotting fruit before we got here. Perhaps even, all day.”

“Now that you have mentioned it, I thought could smell something rather pungent on her breath.” Amakhu pulled hard on the reigns to get Keppaku from bashing them against the trees as they flew dangerously close to the ground.

They flew over the area where Osoroshī’s nest has been, and within minutes of flight they came upon a clearing where the Emperor’s campsite was set. Before his Master’s massive tent was a roaring fire pit. Assembled around it stood erected the smaller tents where Markus and his soldiers stayed, where the emperor’s servants and advisors waited for their Emperor’s return.

“Set us down there!” Maxillus pointed to clearing closest to the camp where his men had all morning worked on. This flying around on the back of a drunken Squat back was getting to be too much.

“We’re too close to Osoroshī’s nest, aren’t we?” Amakhu yelled through the roaring gale as he steered Keppaku to come around to the spot where Maxillus wanted him to land.

“Too damn close if you ask me. I’m surprised the beast isn’t here already.”

“Like I’ve said before, Osoroshī is nocturnal,” Amakhu pulled off the reins and steered Keppaku towards the camp. “Hold on; we’re going to land!”

Maxillus squeezed his eyes shut as they dropped altitude and swung around the camp. The caravan jostled roughly, and Keppaku landed a fair distance from the Emperor’s tent. The contents from within the caravan clattered so noisily that the soldiers on patrol ran over to see if Amakhu had crashed.

Amakhu looked at his friend and smiled with all of his pointy teeth exposed. “That wasn’t so bad, now was it?”

Maxillus quickly unfastened the ropes that held him secured to the seat and he determinedly jumped down to throw up in the nearby bushes.

“Tsk,” Amakhu shook his head. “It wasn’t that bad.”

“You call that a landing?” Markus wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I’m genuinely surprised that beast didn’t land us in a tree.” He spat onto the ground to clear his throat.

“Ah, but remember my friend,” Amakhu wagged his pointy finger in the air. “The more you hunt, the better the meals.”

“Those proverbs of yours need a little more work,” Maxillus brushed the leaves and dirt off his uniform. He then composed himself as the leader his people had believed in him to be.

“It’s just a dragon saying,” Amakhu crossed his arms, “it means that practice makes perfect.”

Maxillus snorted as he shook his head. “Oh, I know…” He chuckled, “I’ve heard my share of them during our trip through the Great Sea.” The Emperor then came up to pat Keppaku on the side. He spotted the damage done to the side of the caravan. “It looks like your caravan needs more work on it.”

“No,” Amakhu climbed down the ladder on his side of the caravan to check out the damage. “But I’ve already done some work on it, and I was going to head back soon. I can’t say here passed dark…” He looked guiltily up at Maxillus. He shrugged, “well, I can’t.”

“I know,” Maxillus place his hand on the runt dragon’s shoulder. “If I had it my way I’d leave too.”

“Are you serious?” Amakhu sounded hopeful, but then he realized that Maxillus wished aloud. He never would abandon his people. He had invested too much effort to get this far to just abandon his goal. “Maybe next time-”

“To be honest Amakhu, “I doubt there will ever be a next time.” Maxillus forced a brave smile.

“You don’t know that for certain.” Amakhu gestured to the campsite the humans erected just for their Emperor. “One thing I’ve learned for being with you human beings is that you never quit. Maybe it’s your stubborn nature. Perhaps even it’s that you are ever so curious of what comes after. You’re always looking ahead, even after a history of errors. You learn to adapt from your mistakes. That is something the dragons fail in. Their memories are so precise, so ingrained in them that they will repeat their errors without refrain. If they are not mindful, it will be their own rage that shall destroy them.”

“You’re an observant little runt dragon,” Maxillus smiled at Amakhu. “In fact, I’d say you’re surprisingly inspirational.”

CHAPTER XII

By late afternoon, all the Emperor’s men (including the runt dragon) assembled in the Emperor’s tent to discuss the plan to defeat Osoroshī. Amakhu stood next to Sergius, and the smell from the human confounded him. As humans go, he had a slight stink to him, peculiar from how any other human had smelled like. Amakhu measured Sergius up and down.

What makes him so different from the other humans? Amakhu deliberated, what’s with that smell—why can’t anyone beside me detect it?

“Amakhu,” Maxillus gestured to the runt dragon, “You know the dragons better than any of my highest advisers here.”

Sergius shifted uncomfortably but held his tongue.

“I suppose that’s true,” Amakhu tilted his head, “but as you already know Osoroshī is a bone collector. As a nocturnal dragon, he hunts best at night and wakes between the hours of twilight to take flight. What’s more, in our early encounter, I saw that he has a slight swelling of the glands under his jaw. That means he’s a fire breather. Which, like other dragons, his hide is harder to pierce. Osoroshī is also the only dragon that has refused Ishmet’s command to return home. From my private discussion with Ishmet, he has also outright refused to return with the other dragons after the peace talks.”

“He’s a bloody lone wolf.” Markus scratched his head. “He takes orders from no one, correct?” He leaned on the table his men brought over from the ship. On it were old maps of the area. A cross marked the spot where the campsite was, then another where the dragon’s nest had been. Both seemed too close for comfort.

“If you ask me,” Sergius added, “he won’t stop until he’s destroyed every single human.”

“Reason enough that I must defeat this beast,” Maxillus frowned, “tonight.”

Amakhu opened his arms, “He loves to hunt and terrorize humans for sport. Plus he knows there isn’t a dragon that would go against their kinsman, even if Ishmet ordered them to.”

“Why is this?” Markus asked. “We follow our leader even if we don’t always agree with their orders.”

“Markus,” The Emperor spoke up, “you are the captain of my guards, and even you don’t always respect my will. How can you expect a giant dragon a whole continent away from his clan leader to respect his own master’s wishes?”

“You might all know this already but,” Sergius laid down more maps, “in the past there’s been many reports of torched fishing boats and coastal villages all up and down this area. No doubt this has been Osoroshī’s doing.”

“Sounds exactly like something Osoroshī would do.” Amakhu nodded as he mulled over the markings of attacks, “all the other dragons have gone back home.”

“So what are we to do?” Markus looked around the room at the people present. “Surely one man can’t possibly defeat that monster.”

“Hold your tongue Markus,” Maxillus warned. “Don’t make me say it again.”

“Your Emperorship,” Markus bowed, “forgive me, I meant no disrespect.”

“Well,” Sergius asked, “Since you and Amakhu just happened across Osoroshī to challenge it—I take it that Osoroshī agreed to the terms of the challenge?”

“Well,” Maxillus scratched the back of his head, “not exactly.”

“I see,” Sergius rubbed his chin. “I guess we’ll have to see what happens tonight. Either your Lordship shall fight Osoroshī alone, or we’ll have to do so to protect Dexius’ ship. The last thing we need is to be stuck on an island miles from home.”

“Oh don’t worry, Osoroshī has agreed to fight him,” Amakhu looked hesitant at first to say the rest. “It’s just that-”

“Funny. Despite how much everyone here thinks I shouldn’t fight this beast alone, I doubt that any of you would fare any better.” The Emperor threw his broadsword on the hardwood table. “In fact, you might all just get in my bloody way!” He turned around and rubbed at his tired brow before he said in a low voice. “Nor would my pride ever ask any of you to fight in my honor.”

The Emperor turned on his assembly of men. He bared his teeth as he spoke out in anger, “Which is why I alone must destroy Osoroshī! The monster will not stop until he’s destroyed our homes and our wives and children are in ashes!” He leaned on the table. He didn’t need to remind them of all those they had lost during the dragon war. For even the thought of his own deceased wife reminded him that Janus might grow up without ever knowing both of his parents. “I do this to protect my son, Janus. So one day he will grow up to become your Emperor. But I cannot burden his young heart for war, but prepare it for peace and for rebuilding what’s left of our empire.”

“You are most wise, your Emperorship,” Amakhu lowered his reptilian head to adjusted his robe. It felt so strange being the go-between to both the dragons that had dominated this world and the human colonists. “You’re correct in reason to do so, but still…”

“I do this…” the Emperor leaned on the table, “so my son shall not inherit the dishonor and the shame his mother and I contributed towards the dragon war.”

After all, he forged a peace pact with the dragon clan to end the war. Although they were an ocean away, He ventured over the vast waters with Amakhu to see Ishmet, the leader of the entire dragon clan. Together, they forged a pact of peace, but it didn’t come without a high price.

His thoughts drifted back to his beloved wife Celia and her accursed little pyroalchemyst cult. If it wasn’t for her occult practices that had soured relations between the two species, she would still be alive. Her cult followers had created machinery to extract the life essence from dragons they’d first capture, then sedate. Sometimes these dragons would survive the procedure, but many wouldn’t. During the trials, the fanatics swore it was their sovereign and religious right. But the elixir they stole from the dragons enabled them such destructive power. After the pyroalchemysts would purify the essence, then use it to create spells on anyone that opposed them. Those enlisted as pyromystics used the extract to forge battle spells of great destructive power. Power no one should have access to. The cult was so powerful they’d influence or bribe officials in the Senate. They’d force others to do their bidding. They even had married into to the Emperor’s own family. That’s how Maxillus learned so much of his wife’s involvement with the cult. Only their leaders failed to see a problem when the dragons found out what they were doing. That was, until the day came when the dragons came across the ocean to wage war on humankind, thus starting the dragon wars. Now that she was gone, including all of her followers, Maxillus would have to make amends. Yes, the great Emperor Maxillus Tullius would have to sacrifice his life to save his own people.

I wish this night were over, he wiped a tired hand over his thinning golden locks, he scratched at his stubble, half listening to his adviser.

“If you cannot return to us, I shall personally take care of Janus for you.” Sergius sniffed pompously, “He shall be Emperor one day.”

“He’d better,” Maxillus grumbled as he glared at his adviser, “or I shall have Markus here cut off your head, then parade it down the streets on a pike.”

“Ah?” Sergius turned nervously to see Markus wink at him. His hand tapped mindfully on the pommel of his sword. “Isn’t that just a tad… excessive?” He looked back at his Master.

“No,” Maxillus looked to Markus, “I don’t think so… do you think so Markus?”

“That wouldn’t be a problem at all,” Markus shook his head, “it would be the least I could do in your honor.”

Sergius stared at Markus, startled by his Master’s threat and the Captain of the Guard’s response. For the first time, he felt like Emperor Maxillus this time around might not be joking.

“Of course, I’m kidding you knucklehead,” Maxillus chuckled as he shook his head. “I’m not a monster Sergius. I just wanted to see if you took what I said as serious or not. Of course, I expect you to take care of Janus while I’m gone. There is no one else I trust more capable than you.”

Sergius looked to Amakhu. That maybe he understood what was going on. The runt dragon just shrugged.

“Has he always had a morbid sense of humor?” Amakhu asked, “By threatening to hurt others?”

“I guess that’s how he’s dealt with stress,” Sergius shrugged. “But then again, you should see when he’s serious. He grows disturbingly quiet. Then this weird look gets in his eyes. It’s most disturbing.”

Markus, however, looked disappointed. He had never removed a person’s head before.

CHAPTER XIII

Before evening, the servants labored over their Master’s armor. The plate mail he wore was of polished chrome, designed more for show than for use in combat. Fitted Between the metal and the wearer laid fire-retardant padding. Apart from the bulky material it would protect him from intense heat, but only for a painfully short while. During the procedure, Maxillus asked Amakhu to see if he had anything in his caravan to give him an advantage against Osoroshī. The meek runt dragon knew better than to refuse, but even though he would check his inventory, he could promise nothing. The Emperor dismissed the runt dragon. After Amakhu had left the tent, Maxillus turned his attention to his advisers. After a lengthy time of discussing strategies among his men, the Emperor grew listless, and then grew bored. So he decided to listen to them with his eyes closed—just for a moment.

He found himself lost in a thick fog. The dream itself felt heavy and as dark as ink spreading out in a glass of water. In his grip, he held a broadsword out. As he moved through the mist, the sound of the armor he wore jangled in his ears, its cold metal rubbed against his padded flesh. His heart banged against his chest. So much that he felt dizzy, his ears rang. He felt a thin trail of cold sweat slid from his head, down to his back. With his free hand he removed his visor and helmet so he could see more. All the while Maxillus kept turning around as if expecting something sinister to appear. The weapon balanced deftly in his hand ready to strike out.

Just then, something big bumped against him as it passed by. It was as casual as a stranger lost in a crowd. Only Maxillus felt he heard, the slow grind of scales across his plate mail. A Dragon just touched me, a cold chill ran down his spine.

“It’s time we end this!” He swung his sword round and it had slashed against something that screamed out like an injured human. In utter horror, he realized that he had sunk his blade into the soft flesh of his beloved.

“Celia!” The sword slipped from his hands. He grabbed at the gash on her side, trying desperately to keep the blood from spilling out of the open wound. Celia’s blood seeped through his leather gloves. It splattered on his armor. It drizzled on the foggy floor. It even soaked the rocks like crimson paint and sunk into the coarse wet sand.

“Why?” He cried aloud, “How could you do this to me? How could you betray your own people?”

Celia grimaced in pain. She brought up her chrome-plated pyromyst gloved hands to Maxillus’ stubbly face. They dripped of drakoleum, an elixir so acidic, it could burn right through exposed flesh.

Celia’s touch burned so much that Maxillus howled as his flesh burned away.

“It’s all for you, my beloved,” Celia smiled up at her husband but displayed hate in her eyes. “This is for betraying me!”

“I-I loved you!” He released her to grab at his burning face. “You betrayed your people for power! Power you shouldn’t have!”

“I was a Pneumagi long before I was ever your Queen!” She spat at him, “now you will face the dragons alone! My love, we could’ve ruled this whole planet together. All we had to do was enslave them, break their will, and they would’ve been ours to control.”

“You’re mad!” The Emperor shoved Celia aside. “I know that now!” He crumpled to the ground defeated by the only woman he loved.

Even though Celia had lost so much blood, she still managed to stand over him with a crazy grin on her gaunt face. Then, with bloodied eyes, the Emperor watched in horror, as Celia became the great beast he had come thus far to face alone.

Osoroshī, the bone collector.

Celia had become the nightmarish creature her lover would have to fight. With its massive webbed wings, it coiled up into the sky as if it were lighter than air. Osoroshī circled above him, fuming with fire; bellowing loud and fierce. There wasn’t a human within earshot that didn’t scramble for cover from this vicious ferocity. As the fog parted Maxillus glanced around as he bent down to pick up his sword. To his dismay, the surrounding shoreline had more human bones littering it than it had sand. He looked to the sea in horror. The blood red water slapped against the shoreline. In the distance, the burned boats bobbed idly, their flames licked the sky.

He rose on shaky legs, swinging his sword back.

“Osoroshī,” He bellowed. “I shan’t die so quickly as the others!” His thumped his hand against his chest plate. “So come forth for a taste of my blade!”

“Well…” Osoroshī chuckled as he twirled playfully in the air, “How delightful. Another fool steps up to challenge me, another puny human.”

“I am not just any human you vile, putrid beast! I am the Emperor himself! I, Maxillus, shall rid this land of your vile kind!”

“If you say so,” Osoroshī swooped down, slashing his talons across Maxillus’ armor.

The plating dented in where the dragon’s claw touched. In some areas, it tore open like a wound, but luckily the Emperor went unharmed. As the beast glided overhead, Maxillus brought his broadsword upwards, stabbing deep into the dragon’s stomach. Maxillus’ face warmed to the spray of hot blood. Osoroshī howled in pain, writhing in the air.

Then, Osoroshī came around. He plowed head first into Maxillus, shoving the mortal into a pile of bones. The sword slipped out from the Emperor’s grasp; it clattered beyond his reach. Maxillus scrambled to grab hold of his sword.

Osoroshī again descended from Heaven, like lightning falling on the earth. His mouth opened like a yawning furnace. Deep in his throat churned an expanding fire.

Inches from his sword, the heavens rained of hellfire. Flames washed over him like lava. Maxillus watched in horror as the leather gloves on his hands burst aflame. He screamed as his armor plating melted into pools of slag on his padded flesh. The hair on his cooked face first shrunk then evaporated around his shriveled ears. The pain had felt so real—Maxillus awoke startled.

CHAPTER XVI

It was dark when the Emperor opened his eyes. He felt numb to the sounds around him. His body felt anchored to the moments ahead while his mind had left his corporeal shell behind. In his detached state, he absently listened to the slight breeze as it rustled the tent flaps. He heard the faint call of distant seabirds, as they prepared to roost for the drawing night. Then he listened to the calming sound of the dying campfire just outside his tent. Maxillus watched on as the fire pit grew into cooling embers, listened as it popped and crackled in the dim light. A refreshing salty chill blew in from outside hidden in a waft of course smoke.

Only two people remained with Maxillus in his final hours. Each gas lamp in the tent was set low enough to go out, everything in the tent had shadowed into muted grays. They stood facing him like mournful statues taken from a cemetery. At least, they seemed that way until one of them begun to speak.

“I hope you had a good rest, your Emperorship,” Sergius bowed. “The sun descends, and everyone’s back on the ship. While you slept, the servants finished their work. Even the soldiers have set up what you asked for.”

“Did Amakhu return?” Maxillus spoke low as he looked around, “if so, why didn’t anyone wake me?”

Sergius came forwards, “he came in earlier, but felt you should get well rested for the duel ahead.”

“Did he leave anything for me?” Maxillus sounded hopeful.

Markus approached to present the offering. “He left this behind,” Markus handed Maxillus a tinted jar. A large cork sealed the opening.

Maxillus held up the jar to examine the contents. “It’s just a bunch of those glowworms he sends messages with.”

“They’re nemomataglots,” Sergius pointed out. “They’re known as messenger worms, just another one of those bizarre little creatures living on this planet. You first extract them from the jar, then you talk to them, cast them into the air and they will send a message to whomever you want on the planet. But I’m sure there are some other uses for them, like for fishing.”

Maxillus wore a look of disgust, handed the jar over to Sergius. He waved his mentor away, “you keep them. They’re of no use to me. I had hoped the runt dragon had something a little more helpful than just a jar of worms.”

“Well then,” Markus puffed out his chest. “Take me along, my Lord. I shall not let you down.” Markus clenched his fist, “together we shall defeat this beast!”

Maxillus bent forwards to smell his Captain’s breath. “Markus, are you drunk?” Maxillus looked at his Captain.

“Perhaps, just a bit.”

“Leave my tent,” Maxillus dismissed him.

“But… your Emperorship,” Markus fell on one knee, “I only mean to-”

“Leave!”

Sergius watched as Markus took his orders in a huff, but he obeyed. The Advisor turned to his Master leaning in towards the latter for one final message.

Maxillus sighed, “I feel that Markus doesn’t have what it takes to protect my son, find someone worthy of this duty.”

“Of course…”

Just then a horrifying sound echoed through the surrounding forest. Osoroshī, the bone collector, had awoken.

Maxillus exchanged a surprised look with Sergius. “Everything’s prepared?”

“Yes, of course,” Sergius nodded solemnly.

“Then you’d best go before Osoroshī arrives.”

“But…” In frustration Sergius slapped the side of his head in attempts to remember one last detail. Something important, but the Emperor started pushing him out of the tent.

“Hurry then, you fool!” Maxillus placed his helmet on and headed in the opposite direction. His broadsword clenched firmly in his hand. The armor the servants had fitted him into as he slept felt tight, almost constricting. It would be good for a few minutes of protection, after that, it’d be a burden.

A burst of flames lit up the cloudy, moonlit sky as Sergius ran for the last boat embarking on the merchant ship. They might not be able to leave in time. Maxillus cursed as he ran for his arsenal of weapons.

CHAPTER XVII

Maxillus ran as fast as his legs could carry him down the sandy beach. He didn’t mind the weight of his armor or the drag of his sword. He had been the fittest example of human engineering. His genetic improvements alone, allowed him to survive the lengthy trip to the dragon planet. There, he had remembered, kneeling before his uncle (the previous Emperor) as a Commander with an army of his own prepared to go against the dragon uprising. But it wasn’t until his uncle’s unexpected death that his days as a warrior would end. It had been something he hadn’t asked for or had expected. He thought back to the day Sergius came to the bunker to discuss matters of great importance.

“I do not have the training, or the skills to replace my uncle,” Maxillus scowled down at Sergius. “I am not a politician; I came here to protect the colonists, not to represent them in the Senate.”

“Then your skills as a military figurehead shall just have to do.” Sergius handed him a scroll. On it was a wax seal of the Senate. “Only you have the experience to lead us to certain victory.”

“What is this?” Maxillus unrolled the scroll and started to read.

“The Senate demands that you help us further—as our beloved Emperor. In times of war, we need a fearless leader to show that we cannot fall, that we cannot fail.”

Maxillus lowered the scroll. “I’m only a soldier.” He tossed the scroll back to the messenger. “I can’t imagine my uncle would’ve approved of me…”

“If you had looked at the signature on the bottom, you’d see that it had your uncle’s signature on it,” Sergius opened the scroll to show him. “It even has the seal from his ring.”

“His final decree,” Maxillus scowled as he saw Sergius’ hand out. In it, a small polished box. In that had been his uncle’s seal ring. A particular ring used to press into the melted wax on a document by the Emperor himself.

That day, Maxillus’ life had changed from warrior to a political leader. In time he had learned that sometimes they were one of the same.

CHAPTER XVIII

My ring! Max jumped over a log just as a burst of flames from the dragon belched overhead. Damn it all to Hades! I forgot to give Sergius the royal signet ring back for Janus when he comes of age! Curses to Hades! He started to unfasten the shouldering plate mail from his fire retardant clothing. The very same the pyromysts had worn to keep from having their clothes burst into flames every time they cast a spell. Even the chrome from the plate mail was disturbingly similar to the kind used by the infamous spellcasters. His gloves smoldered with heat, but they did not combust.

Osoroshī flew overhead. His fiery breath blazed the entire campsite in search of his opponent. Luckily the Emperor stood in a trench a safe distance from the dragon. Hiding in a network of underground tunnels and trenches his men had dug for him. This alone would enable Maxillus a chance to evade the dragon’s wrath, yet get close enough to defeat the beast.

Maxillus unsheathed his broadsword up to look at it in the moonlight like a lover. Its wood handle felt good in his hand. It would insulate his hand from burns should the sword become too hot to hold. The blacksmith that made the sword originally forged it for his uncle. It had a long jagged blade, plus two little hooks on its side for prying open dragon scales. In a skilled swordsman’s hand, it could pry open the scales; then the blade could pierce into the beast’s hot flesh. A talent Markus coached the future Emperor on before Sergius sent Maxillus off to hunt down the dragon that had taken his uncle’s life.

Today, he promised, Osoroshī shall taste the steel of this blade.

Just then, Osoroshī rushed over to where Maxillus had been. Hurrying through the tunnels, he heard the dragon laughing out. “Your blade hath given you away.” He huffed up and belched out a blast of fire which spread across the trench. Osoroshī the dug his massive claws into the tunnel, like a dog that seeks a buried bone. In stark terror Maxillus hurried down the underground trench and popped up behind the dragon. A loud banging sound came from behind them. Both the human and the dragon spun around to look at the source. Someone had fired a weapon from the ship, striking Osoroshī in the back.

Idiot! Maxillus scorned the one person that came to mind. Markus, you damnable fool!

Osoroshī growled and took off into the air, headed for the merchant ship. Buying Maxillus some time to come up with a better plan than duck and dodge under the tunnels.

 

In the distance, Osoroshī circled the merchant ship, screeching out a battle cry which echoed through the island. A trail of fire belched from his mouth like a comet streams across the night sky. He flew towards Dexius’ merchant ship, screeching profanities at it in his dragon tongue.

“Oh look at what I see? A little merchant ship filled full of sailors! What a tasty treat for me!” Osoroshī belched out another ball of fire that just narrowly missed the merchant ship. “Who’s going to save you now little boat?” The dragon taunted in the pale moonlight. “I’ll burn you to cinders! Then I’ll laugh as your smoldering dead doth float!”

Maxillus glanced over to the large harpoon gun Markus had set up for him. It sat preloaded with a barbed harpoon, fastened to cables and some weighted netting. It would prove enough to prevent Osoroshī from attacking the ship, plus Maxillus could reel him in like a hooked fish. It would also prevent him from attacking Dexius’ prized merchant ship as it headed for deeper waters.

I must trap Osoroshī on land if I’m to get close enough for the kill. Maxillus thought as he aimed the giant harpoon at the dragon. He lined the scope where the dragon would be, and then he—pulled the trigger! The sound was deafening.

Maxillus had taken the shot. His ears buzzed with the swan song and for many uncomfortable minutes every other sound muffled out. Meanwhile, in the distance, Osoroshī’s body moved as if something struck him as he belched off the third fireball to the merchant ship bellow. This time, he struck the starboard quarter, drenching it in the fire. Maxillus cursed out as the sailor scrambled about to stifle the blaze. Osoroshī’s right wing flapped weakly. He flapped harder to compensate for the damage done, desperate to remain in the air.

Quickly soldier! Maxillus slipped in the explosive cap followed by a harpoon to lock it into place. He rushed around to the back to steady his aim. After a few uneasy seconds of looking through the scope, he fired. This time, he saw Osoroshī reeling around from the shot and then disappears into the sea.

 

Minutes pass like hours for Maxillus as he watches the water for a sign of his opponent. The water starts to flow, bubble and splash as Osoroshī sloshed up the sandy shoreline with two harpoons protruding from his body. Steam rises from the beast’s body as he scans the area for any signs of Maxillus. His eyes reflect a creepy pale glow, his mouth a furnace. He then slumps down and after a few minutes Osoroshī slumps over in exhaustion.

Taking advantage of the dragon’s predicament, Maxillus starts switching to harpoons fitted with long barbed hooks. Each one fastened by lengths of cord that even Osoroshī couldn’t break. As he fires the first one, Osoroshī just flinches, but he doesn’t move. The Emperor then shoots a weighted net over the resting dragon. In hopes, it would keep Osoroshī from trying to attack on the merchant ship. Confident of his handiwork Maxillus stands up smiling. He’s confident the fights over. That all he has to do is get closer and…

Overhead there’s a break in the clouds as the moon wanes past. Its light reveals where Maxillus is hiding. His remaining armor glints like a lit mirror, a beacon to the sleeping dragon.

“There you are!” Osoroshī pushes off the ground, against the netting that weighted him down. He then flexed his webbed wings against his bonds, failing to move or flap them in the air. It would take some time to break free of them, but at least he can still crawl forwards.

Meanwhile, Osoroshī wastes no time, he turns to belch out a fireball where Maxillus stood. The fireball rocketed towards the Emperor who had just seconds to dive out-of-the-way. The fireballs intense heat reduces the large harpoon gun to slag. The explosive caps used to fire the harpoons go up like fireworks.

Luckily Maxillus had escaped down into the excavated hole his men had dug earlier. From a safe distance to the blast, the tunnel around him shook from the explosion, while overhead it rained debris.

“I won’t need this on anymore…” the Emperor untied and then unclasped the remaining pieces of his armor, letting it all drop to the dirt floor with a muted clang. He hazarded a quick look up and then slowly backed down into the tunnel. For above him, Osoroshī was busy clawing through the rubble, searching for charred remains of his opponent. Maxillus quietly distanced himself further from the tunnel entrance. His arm bumped against the other supplies Markus left for him. In the dark he reaches out and feels something that brings him back to his earlier years, before his military training. Maxillus tested the compound bow to see if it was setting correctly. The quiver beside it was equipped with a score of razor-sharp hunting arrows.

Well, well, well… He grinned, Markus, you thought of everything.

He slung the quiver over his back and headed deeper into the surrounding forest before Osoroshī would discover the tunnels. Then engulf them in flames.

Osoroshī clawed over to where he had last seen Maxillus. The cables entangled around and into his body prevented him from advancing any further. Osoroshī turned to look at the wound that kept him land bound. A harpoon dangled from his right wing, it penetrated through the webbing and wedged deep into his rib cage. He went to remove it, but the thin cables wrapped around his body allowed little leverage. Try as he might snap through, he found them to be as unbreakable as steel chains.

“How is this even possible?” Osoroshī huffed, “the cord is so thin, barely a hair—yet I can’t bite through it?”

“That cord, my malignant fiend, came from Earth! It’s the carbon fibers that make it unbreakable!” Maxillus shouted from a safer spot in the forest. He ever so patiently notched a hunting arrow, drew back the bowstring and aimed. At the right angle, the tip could puncture through the dragon’s scaly hide. That was if anyone knew how to use a compound bow like Maxillus could. Back on Earth, he had been an archery champion and had won many awards to prove it.

“Yes,” Osoroshī scanned around in the surrounding forest for the little human’s heat trail. Only his breath had torched the fallen autumn leafs and so, like the campsite earlier, the surrounding forest had burst into flames. The dragon squinted through the smoke. He flicked the remainder of his tongue in the hot rush of air, cursing that he had lost his sense of smell.

“You can’t hide from me forever little man-”

Your reign of terror stops tonight. Maxillus hurried through the burning woods to get to higher ground. He tried not to cough, but the smoke burned his eyes, his lungs. If he didn’t get out, he would pass out soon.

“I don’t want to go out this way.” Maxillus grimaced and pushed himself harder that even he ever thought possible. “Move it, soldier!” His muscles threatened to give out, but he kept on pushing his limits. His younger years of military training had paid off.

In the corner of his eye the Emperor spotting something bright and closing in fast. He jumped just in time to the spot behind him exploded with unbearable heat.

In his rage, Osoroshī had firebombed the spot where Maxillus had leaped passed just a few seconds ago.

On the opposite side of where Osoroshī breathed fire, an arrow whisked through the air and stuck into his neck. Another arrow zipped past; it embedded into the left eyeball. Another struck, then another, and then another. Every arrow Maxillus used had hit their mark, again and again, until the dragon’s body looked like a giant pincushion.

Osoroshī oozed blood like a hot spring, but he still had the strength to remove most the harpoons from his wounds. After he finished doing that he bumped up under a rocky cliff to loosen some of the arrows like a dog scratches away some pesky fleas. “You’ll have to leave the forest eventually.” He bellowed above the roaring fire that consumed the forest around him. “You can’t survive in there as I can!”

Maxillus came up and looked over the cliff’s edge, down on Osoroshī as he rubbed against the cliff wall. Now’s the time to finish this, Maxillus thought as he discarded his compound bow and emptied quiver. Ever so patiently he unsheathed the broadsword. Again he peeked over to make sure Osoroshī was still under him. He had come around to the high point to discovered Osoroshī licking his wounds.

“I know you’re nearby,” Osoroshī glanced around in hopes to spot the pathetic human with his remaining good eye. “So what little hole have you dug yourself into now, little man?”

From the cliff’s edge, Maxillus jumped on Osoroshī’s back, stabbing the sword deep between the Osoroshī’s spine and the rib cage. Osoroshī backed up on his back haunches like a wild horse being broken in. The dragon howled out in such anger plus great pain. Maxillus felt the spray of shearing hot dragon blood and screamed as if a boiling pot of scalding oil had splashed on his exposed flesh. The Emperor screamed out in blinding pain and slipped off his opponent.

Osoroshī turned slowly to glance down at the writhing fool. “Well done Human,” Osoroshī labored from breath.

The sword had lodged in the Osoroshī’s back. The damage it did to his spinal cord guaranteed that even if Osoroshī could live on he would never fly again. “It looks like you got the best of me at the cost of your own life, doesn’t it?”

The Emperor grimaced as he employed his good leg to kick away on his back from the dragon. Maxillus had shattered his right knee from the fall. He bumped up against a pile of sun-bleached logs. Maxillus tried to speak, but he horrifically realized that his own lips had burned off. All he had left were his teeth left. His nose had melted away. His eyes had no eyelids left to blink back the tears. His exposed skin, his golden locks of hair, even his scalp—burned beyond recognition. He just kept still, staring at the Dragon in shock from the pain.

“I promise to make it quick and painless — so at least you won’t have to suffer,” Osoroshī rose like a cobra about to strike. His mouth heated up like a smelting furnace.

Maxillus put out his trembling hand. He gurgled for breath, or perhaps even to say something defiant.

A hot glowing bubble of warm light formed in the middle of Osoroshī’s chest cavity and began to expand. But before Osoroshī could scream, his ribcage exploded. A ball of dragon fire burst forth, ripping him apart.

Maxillus tried to sit up, to move, to do something, but his body wouldn’t obey. He was in shock.

A muffled voice spoke above the crackling of burning wood, and the sound of wet dragon flesh slapping to the ground like fish flopping around on dry land. “Years ago I remember a rumor saying that a pyromystics’ spell was easy to perform. That it was by no means taxing on the user.” The shadowed figure walked over the gory mess, “but like many other things said about us is simply untrue.”

The figure drew closer, through the smoke and stood before Maxillus as he labored for breath. The stranger wore a dark robe. On his face, he wore a white frowning ceramic mask used by stage actors.

Maxillus’ could not pull away as the figure loomed closer. He found it so hard to stay conscious. He gurgled something incomprehensible.

“Shush now, don’t panic.” The figure squatted close to the dying Emperor and put up his gloved hands, “please don’t fret—just stay calm. I promise to be as gentle as possible.” The figure looked around at the condition of the island. How the dull, pale moonlight mingled with the firelight, casting its share of ominous shadows, making everything look like a burning cemetery. The figure turned his attention back to the Emperor and started to remove Maxillus’ smoldering right glove. The Emperor grunted. He grabbed the man’s robe to pull him closer to get him to help.

“I-I’m so sorry, but I can’t save you…” the hooded figure in black took the dying man’s hand in his. “You must be in so much pain. I did, however, come back for this.” He gently tugged the Emperor’s leather glove off. He slid the signet ring off the Emperor’s trembling ring finger.

“Shhhhhh…” the figure comforted the dying Emperor by taking his trembling hand. “I promised I’d give this ring to Janus on the day he becomes Emperor, and so I returned to you to keep that promise.”

With what strength Maxillus had left, he grabbed the stranger’s robe. Before the stranger could react, he removed the ceramic mask. As it fell to the soft sand, the figure stood up hiding his face in the surrounding shadows. His servant had returned to keep a promise.

“I must go, or the longer I stay, the greater the chances of getting caught.” His leather hand sought a small canister on the side of his belt. In it was an acid liquid that started to burn through the leather glove. As the glove was dissolved, it revealed a second pair. The new glove composed of thin strips of polished chrome; they started at the fingertips, then it encased the entire hand. The acidic elixir could not reach the flesh to burn it clean off the bone.

Maxillus silently watched the pyromyst as he wrote his transport spell in the air with the acid from the canister. Then he slumped over as the magician stepped through to the other side where he heard the sailors on the merchant ship heading for home. He felt the cold salty wind from the sea. He wished that he too could head home, back to his son Janus. The Emperor’s body felt heavy. He felt so damned tired and ready to give up the ghost, but the strangest thing happened before he allowed himself to succumb.

In the distance, the nemomataglots appeared like squiggling little lights dancing in the night sky. As the messenger worms squiggled closer they begun to mass into this wiggling ball-like mass before the dying Emperor. Then each worm began to form letters in the air. With nothing but tears to wet his exposed eyes, Maxillus read the message from Amakhu. At first, it started as a sad farewell, but then it changed to happier news. It said that Ishmet had declared the dragon war: over.

Then, with an ounce of strength left Maxillus touched the message, and it broke apart. The glowworms scattered like gamblers dice; they wiggled back into the sky. Back from where they came. Rising above the little island, headed for the open sea. As the dying Emperor’s head droops forwards, he dies knowing that he had brought honor back to his people.

 

 


A Dragon's Decree

On a secluded world, human colonists war against a race of dragons for supremacy. A newly appointed Emperor sacrifices everything he loves to bring peace, or risk the extinction of his people. With the help of a runt dragon named Amakhu, Emperor Maxillus ventures across the ocean to speak to Ishmet, the leader of the Dragon clan. On his return Maxillus must single-handedly defeat a renegade dragon bent on destroying his race.

  • Author: Mick Sylvestre
  • Published: 2016-08-29 08:05:12
  • Words: 21446
A Dragon's Decree A Dragon's Decree