Chapter 4: Monster
They made good time on their way back east. They traveled quickly despite the melting snow, without making many stops at the towns on the way. Almonihah found he enjoyed the resurgence of life that came with the spring, and he especially enjoyed the seasonal thunderstorms which roared over the North Forest. Something about the wind, the rain, and the lightning touched a chord deep in his soul.
Zrathanzon continued Almonihah’s instruction in the various skills useful to living in the wilderness. Almonihah took well to the teachings, absorbing all that his mentor could teach him almost as fast as he could teach. In addition to weapon training and wilderness lore, Almonihah also learned more of the religions and cultures of Draezoln. Zrathanzon seemed to have a deep knowledge of nearly every subject Almonihah could think to ask about.
“How old are you, Zrathanzon?” Almonihah asked one day.
The older half-dragon laughed. “What brought this up, kid?”
Almonihah shrugged. “Just wondering.”
Zrathanzon thought for a moment. “Well, let’s just say that I’ve been around for long enough to see a lot of things and meet a lot of people.”
“That’s not an answer,” Almonihah stated grumpily.
Zrathanzon’s only response was another laugh.
They spent most of that year traveling back and forth through the North Forest, occasionally visiting the various communities at its edge, sometimes helping with some problem they had with the local wildlife. As the days started to shorten and the leaves started to change colors, they headed back west towards Llinos’s valley.
One night, as the two half-dragons were sleeping in their tent, something awakened Almonihah. He blinked and looked around, his draconic eyes piercing even the near perfect darkness of the inside of their tent. It took him a moment to register that Zrathanzon wasn’t in the tent with him anymore.
Just as he was about to call out, he heard a hushed voice whisper from just outside of the tent in Draconic, Almonihah, get your dagger slowly and come out of the tent. Make as little noise as possible.
Almonihah’s heart started thumping as he considered why Zrathanzon would be whispering like this, but he quietly moved to obey. He quickly got his belt with his dagger scabbarded in it, hesitated for a moment, then pulled his dagger out and left the belt. Then he silently moved to the flap and left the tent.
He looked around, his draconic night vision picking out the details of the night in black and white. It was a cloudy night—it had just rained yesterday—so any normal human would have been hopelessly blind in the darkness, but Almonihah could easily make out his mentor standing with his back to him, sword out, staring into the darkness.
He could also make out movements in the underbrush around them.
What are they, Zrathanzon? Almonihah whispered as he slowly made his way to the Ranger.
Get back-to-back with me, Zrathanzon murmured, seemingly ignoring his pupil’s question. Once he obeyed, the Ranger answered, Fell-wolves.
Fell-wolves? Almonihah repeated the unfamiliar word as he took the defensive stance Zrathanzon had taught him to assume when at his mentor’s back.
You’ll see, Zrathanzon responded, Just watch yourself. They’ll try to separate you from me, then kill you when you’re alone. So stick with me.
Just then there was a sudden movement as one of the fell-wolves leapt out of the undergrowth at Zrathanzon. Almonihah had a brief glance of a huge, lupine shape before his guardian shouted, Duck! As he did so, Zrathanzon ducked low as well, his blade flashing across the beast’s neck as it flew over the pair and collapsed in the darkness on the other side of them. Almonihah watched it, wide-eyed, as it growled and twitched in its death throes.
He didn’t have long to watch, however. It seemed as if the death of the first beast was the signal for its brethren to advance. Suddenly the small clearing they were camped in was alive with huge, furred shapes, prowling around the pair, snapping at them. Almonihah could see now that they did indeed resemble wolves, though they were much larger than Garekh, and the third pair of legs was certainly not normal wolf equipment. They seemed wary of Zrathanzon’s blade after what had happened to the first fell-wolf to attack, but it wasn’t long before another of the beasts crouched to pounce.
Zrathanzon shouted for his pupil to duck again, but this time Zrathanzon dodged to the side as the fell-wolf leapt at him—only to slash its fellow that had darted out from the side in anticipation of him ducking again. It fell back whimpering as blood ran in its eyes from the gash in its forehead while its fellow almost landed on one of the fell-wolves circling in on Almonihah.
From then on, the night was a constant whirlwind of flashing fangs, yelled instructions, and rapid movements. Almonihah struggled to keep up with his mentor as he danced about, somehow always getting his sword between himself and the next fell-wolf to attack. Almonihah determinedly stayed at the Ranger’s back, his small dagger held at the ready. Once a fell-wolf got close enough for him to slash its nose before Zrathanzon stabbed it behind the base of the skull, and once one snapped its teeth so close to the little half-dragon’s face that he felt the spittle spray from its mouth as its fangs clicked shut. He rammed his little dagger into the closest part of it he could find, and barely hung on to it as the wounded beast jerked away.
Almonihah glanced over his shoulder sometime during the battle just in time to see two fell-wolves attacking Zrathanzon from different directions. The older half-dragon slashed at one of the pair, which fell back. The other crouched to pounce, and Almonihah was about to shout a warning, when Zrathanzon exhaled a stream of flame at the creature. It yelped in pain as its leap turned into a painful flop on the ground. It rolled around for a bit, trying to put out its flaming fur, then lay still.
After what seemed like an eternity but could only have been a few minutes, the pack had had enough. The remaining fell-wolves fled back into the darkness, leaving several dead and dying pack members littering the clearing. Once he was sure the pack was not returning, Zrathanzon quickly dispatched the fell-wolves that still showed signs of life.
After checking the corpses one last time to make sure none still breathed, Zrathanzon asked to his younger companion, You all right, kid?
Still a bit out of breath from the ordeal, Almonihah simply nodded.
Okay, then, his mentor replied, See if you can get the fire started again. We need to clean up these corpses.
Almonihah obediently started restarting the fire, but couldn’t help but ask, We’re going to burn them? At his mentor’s nod, the half-bronze-dragon asked further, Why?
“They may not be Javni’Tolkhrah, but they’re still chaos-touched,” the older half-dragon replied, switching back to the Common Tongue. “Never a good idea to leave chaos-touched corpses laying around for something to eat. Never know what it might do to them.”
“Oh…” Almonihah seemed a little unsure at this answer, and hurried to help with the burning of the bodies.
It took them several hours to burn all of the bodies. They seemed to burn reluctantly, producing an acrid, pungent smoke that seemed to get into the back of Almonihah’s throat and burn like acid despite his best efforts to avoid breathing it. By the time the last of the fell-wolf corpses had burnt down to ashes, Almonihah was more exhausted than he had been since his first day with Zrathanzon, especially since a few of the hours spent on the task were hours he would normally have been sleeping. However, despite his fatigue, he didn’t complain when his mentor said they were moving out. Even if it meant forcing himself to walk despite his exhaustion, he didn’t want to spend the night near the ashes.
They only traveled a couple of miles that day. Zrathanzon called a halt when they reached a small clearing at the side of a stream, and then suggested that it would be a good place to clean their clothing and equipment to try to get the smell of the smoke out of them.
“We don’t want to have such a strong scent. It’ll chase off the game and attract more attention we don’t want,” the Ranger explained.
They spent the remainder of their afternoon cleaning, which only made Almonihah even more tired when it finally came time to sleep. He fell asleep almost as soon as he laid down, but his sleep was far from dreamless. He saw the fell-wolves again in his dreams, only this time it was not Zrathanzon but his mother who was at his back, and no matter how well they fought, there were always more and more, until he was certain his arm would fall off before they could fend them all off. Just when he was sure they would be overwhelmed, he heard a huge roar behind him. He turned to see his father in his full draconic power plowing through the beasts, his claws flashing and fangs snapping. The fell-wolves fled before the onslaught, leaving the path clear for his mother to run to his father.
For some reason, she slowed and then stopped short of the bronze dragon. There was a tense silence for a moment, and then a bright light coupled with the sharp crack of thunder. Again Almonihah watched his mother fall, struck down by lightning…
Almonihah started awake, his heart pounding. After looking around for a moment to reorient himself and reassure himself that he had simply been dreaming, his pulse slowed. His mind started to process the dream, recognizing the ridiculous nature of it. It hadn’t been his father whose lightning breath had struck his mother, it had been a blue dragon. Zrathanzon had told him so.
But he had never seen for himself.
Frowning, Almonihah shook off the thought, telling himself that he needed sleep if he didn’t want to feel even worse in the morning. He rolled over and slowly drifted off to sleep.
Almonihah awoke with a bit of a lingering cough and aches in places he’d forgotten he could ache in. Zrathanzon, as usual, had already arisen and began morning preparations. Despite his aches, Almonihah arose to join the Ranger in preparing breakfast, trying to put the dreams of last night behind him.
The only sign that Zrathanzon was thinking of what had happened the day before was a new focus and emphasis on Almonihah’s weapons drills to help him competently defend himself. Otherwise, the day passed uneventfully as they continued south and west, heading for one of the communities the older half-dragon had not visited for a while.
“They’re a bit less accepting of me than a lot of the other towns along the Road,” he explained to his pupil, “But I try to check in on them every now and then anyways.”
They reached the edge of the forest the next day. As the trees started to thin, Almonihah looked up, sniffed a little bit, then said, “I smell smoke.”
Zrathanzon paused for a moment, considering, and then replied, “Sure enough. And I hear a bit of something. Wonder if someone’s moved out this way.”
It wasn’t long before they could see a small cabin through the few remaining trees. It looked to be the home of a small family. The pair of half-dragons could see the father working at pulling stumps out of the ground with a couple of oxen, while a young child played out front of the cabin under the watchful eye of his mother.
Just as the half-dragons saw the family, the mother glanced up and saw the half-dragons. She screamed “Monsters!” and ran to pick up her child and run back into the house. The father looked up, saw them, and shouted, “Stay back, beasts!” as he dropped the tools he had been working with and fumbled for a battered sword at his side.
Let’s go, Zrathanzon murmured to Almonihah, and then slid back into the woods. Almonihah took a moment to overcome his shock, and then did likewise.
They were silent for a little while as they started to circle back around. This time they made sure to give the homestead a wide berth.
After a while Almonihah broke the silence. “Zrathanzon, why did she call us monsters?”
Zrathanzon sighed. “Some people think anything with scales is a monster.”
Almonihah was silent for a little while, then asked, “What exactly is a monster?”
The older half-dragon chuckled a bit at the simple question… then stopped, a puzzled expression on his face. “You know,” he said, a touch of amusement in his voice, “I think people have a lot of different definitions of that word.”
“Like what?” Almonihah refused to be so easily turned from his course of inquiry.
“Well…” Zrathanzon thought for a moment before saying, “Some people call any creature they’re afraid of a monster.”
“So why would people be afraid of us? We don’t want to hurt them.”
The Ranger sighed. “They don’t know that. They just see the scales and the claws and jump to conclusions.”
“Oh…” Almonihah replied. He opened his mouth as if to ask another question, paused, thought for a moment, and then asked, “Are dragons monsters?”
“Most people think they are,” Zrathanzon replied.
“Do you think they are?”
Zrathanzon sighed. “Some of them certainly are. The Chromatic dragons usually are. Even some Metallic ones are. But not all of them are.”
“Chromatic… that’s the Red, Blue, Green, and White, right? And then Metallic is Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Copper,” Almonihah responded, half to himself.
Zrathanzon nodded. Almonihah seemed to have run to the end of his line of questioning, and they walked the remainder of the way to the village in silence.
The gate guard hailed them long before they reached the palisade around the small village, then came jogging out to meet them.
“Ranger!” He shouted as soon as he could be understood. “Stay there!”
Zrathanzon obediently halted and waited while the guard approached.
The guard stopped as soon as he was within comfortable speaking distance. “Ranger,” he said in wary greeting.
Zrathanzon nodded in acknowledgement, then asked “Is there a problem?”
The guard shifted from one foot to the other uncomfortably. “I’m… afraid I can’t let you come into town, Ranger. Captain’s orders.”
The half-gold dragon nodded and said, “I was afraid that might be it. Any reason why?”
“A dragon attacked the next village up the Gold Road, and… well, it’s got everybody on edge. People were already nervous whenever you showed up and… well, I remember what you did for my pa, but lots of folk here are too new for that, and, well…” he shrugged, “Probably for the best if you jus’ stayed out of town.”
Zrathanzon sighed. “It probably is. By the way, you wouldn’t happen to know what color that dragon was?”
The guard seemed a bit caught off guard by the question, but after a moment he shook his head.
“Did it breathe fire?”
The guard nodded. “That’s what the survivors said.”
“Red, then,” Zrathanzon murmured to himself. “Very well, then.” He turned his head to Almonihah. “Let’s head out, kid.”
Almonihah followed him in silence while the guard went back to his post. Once they were back in the woods, though, he asked, “Why did you want to know what color it was?”
“In case I need to go hunting,” Zrathanzon growled, startling his pupil with the intensity of his tone.
Almonihah was silent for a time, as if his mentor’s fierce response had made him a bit uneasy about further questions. After a few minutes, however, Almonihah asked another question. “So what is it you did for them?”
Zrathanzon took a moment to come out of his thoughts. “I fought off some monsters twenty or thirty years ago,” he said with a bit of a shrug. “Most of the people there don’t even remember it happened, if they ever knew.” Zrathanzon paused for a moment, then continued in Draconic, with a little bit of sadness in his voice, “There’s a saying among dragons. Human memories are the only things shorter than their lives.”
Almonihah thought it over for a bit, then asked, “How long do dragons live?”
Zrathanzon laughed. “Always another question with you, isn’t it?” Then he shook his head in amusement and answered, “No one’s really sure. I know there’re dragons out there who’ve lived for more than five thousand years. Beyond that?” He shrugged. “I haven’t ever heard of a dragon dieing of old age.”
Almonihah processed this for a bit, then asked, “How long do you think you’ll live?”
Zrathanzon was silent for long enough that Almonihah started to wonder if he shouldn’t have asked that question, but just as he was about to say something else, Zrathanzon responded, his voice a bit distant, “I can’t say that I know. Each half-dragon is different, and it’s not like there’re enough of us for there to be any kind of ‘normal’. That being said, elves live for about a thousand years, so I figure I’m good for at least two thousand.”
There was silence after that. Zrathanzon looked down at his little pupil. The half-bronze dragon seemed deep in thought. The older half-dragon just grinned a bit and kept walking.