Garyl Shadowslayer watched from far away as somebody else saved the world.
Burning brightly from the hellish fires inside, Derrezen the Dragon-God soared through the distant skies. A roar sent reverberations through the rocky ground that Garyl felt in his boots. A blast of fire burned away the pale gray mist that clung to the barren land he had created, searing the skin of foes too small for the traveler to see from his distant vantage point. The bellow of frustration from the crimson-scaled beast that followed revealed one impossible fact: his foes still lived. Some stupid, stubborn mortals had the gall to challenge a dragon whose wings had touched the primordial sky and who had sent the corpse of this world’s creator crashing to the ground. Not only that, but they were winning.
Garyl walked onward through a dry riverbed that served as his road. The first rays of dawn poked tentatively through thick clouds, washing the world in auburn and violet hues. The traveler’s orange eyes flashed as they darted about, surveying his immediate surroundings. His charcoal-colored skin, which had provided him with the blessing of concealment in the lightless night, now left him exposed—a black, moving form in the dead environment known as the Dragonlands.
He told himself to focus on his surroundings. For his own safety, he had to let the matter in the distance sort itself out. But he couldn’t keep his gaze away from the distant battle.
For almost 150 years, armies loyal to the kingdom of Blackwood had fought against the Dragon-God. They used swords and arrows, catapults and rifles, and other weapons whose secrets only the great scientists and alchemists of the realm knew. None of them had left so much as a scratch on Derrezen’s ancient hide. But now, a handful of tiny specks on the horizon—no more than half a dozen at most of the realm’s mightiest heroes, empowered by who-knew-what—made the great beast bleed. One of them muttered an incantation and storm clouds gathered over the mountaintop where the battle took place. Lightning leapt from the sky at the great sorcerer’s command, stunning the Dragon-God and causing him to lilt in his flight. He veered close enough to a crag for a warrior to strike with biting steel—a blade that Garyl could only imagine having been crafted in some otherworldly gnomish forge and etched with runes by giants in the distant west. The blade struck home and Derrezen bellowed in pain.
In his mind’s eye, Garyl imagined a long gash opening on the dragon’s skin. Hot black blood spilled out, and a creature that had ruled the northlands for multiple human lifetimes finally felt pain. One of the bipedal gnats Derrezen had terrorized for so long finally knew how to sting.
Garyl smiled at the picture his imagination had conjured up for him.
“You’re going to die, old snake.” He spoke as quietly and casually as though the dragon were standing next to him. If the stories about dragons’ uncanny senses had any truth to them, maybe the traveler’s soft jibe rang loudly in Derrezen’s ears as his final futile battle continued.
He should have stayed focused on his surroundings.
Something leapt at him from atop the riverbank, and he didn’t see it until it was almost upon him. His hand flew to the sword at his side, but he moved too slowly. The creature hit him in the side and knocked him flat. One of Garyl’s arms got tangled in his red traveler’s cloak as his body hit the rocky riverbed. The other fumbled with his sword while his feet kicked out wildly, trying to keep the monster that had found him from infecting him with whatever death curse drove the creatures of the Dragonlands.
Sharp nails raked across the top of Garyl’s brow, drawing blood that spilled down into his eyes and left his vision a blur. He inhaled sharply at the pain and smelled a sickly-sweet stench that reminded him of rotten bacon. It had human-liked hands—that much was obvious from the way in which it now grasped Garyl’s throat.
Garyl heard a pop of cartilage and felt the muscles in his neck lock up as the creature wrapped its long hands around his neck. Strong fingers closed around his windpipe, but the attacker also twisted its grip sharply, trying to break its prey’s neck and end the battle quickly. As Garyl’s own breathing stopped, he felt hot, fetid breath against his skin, like that of a rabid dog. If it could breathe it could hurt, so Garyl shot a short, hard punch where he guessed his attacker’s torso to be. His fist met with flesh, and he heard a satisfying snarl of pain. The creature’s grip loosened, and Garyl threw his weight to the side. He rolled over once, twice, and then came free of the strangling grip, leaving his would-be murderer behind.
He sprang to his feet and finally pulled his sword free, although he had no way of knowing whether it would do him any good. The cut on his brow was far from lethal, but it bled enough to keep his right eye from seeing clearly. He looked at his foe with his one good eye, and his lip curled in disgust.
Shambling to its feet, the creature should have died long ago but still drew breath, kept in this mortal world by whatever fell magic Derrezen had used to warp the fallen kingdoms he conquered. It looked like an emaciated human, with clothes and armor tattered almost beyond recognition. An empty scabbard hung at its belt and half of a steel helmet sat on its head. The area where the helmet had broken away—probably shattered open by some other creature of this desolate land—revealed an equally mauled face. Blackened teeth revealed themselves where something had ripped the flesh away from its jawbone. What skin remained was charred and ragged, hanging off burned muscles and sinew like grisly rags. Something in this blighted land had burned the creature alive, but had also taken away its ability to die properly.
The creature tensed its body when it saw Garyl’s well-polished blade. The bleeding traveler felt his stomach sink—not only because he now saw his attacker in all its nauseating glory, but also because he didn’t like his odds in the ensuing combat. Maybe a clean strike through the heart could finally put this creature to rest, but he didn’t know for sure. Things that didn’t die properly the first time sometimes didn’t die at all.
His tumble away from the monster had opened up a gap of about six feet between the pair. Garyl waved his sword in front of him and hopped backwards, hoping to use the reach of his weapon to his advantage. At the same time, his eye scanned his foe for any useful information he could utilize. He found it in a tatter of cloth that flapped slightly in the morning breeze. It had once been a tunic, or perhaps a scrap of armor. Gray fabric with what looked like the top of a black tree embroidered onto it—not unlike the silhouette of a wolf howling under an ash tree that served as the royal emblem of Blackwood.
“Stand down, soldier!” Garyl barked in his most commanding voice.
The creature tilted its head quizzically. One eye, devoid of the supporting flesh around it, looked him up and down. Inwardly, Garyl cursed. He wore a black tunic and breeches with a simple red traveler’s cloak. Had he a military rank and uniform, his bluff might work better.
“I said stand down!” He drew himself up to stand as tall and imposing as he could—to limited success given his thin, elfin stature.
A low gurgling growl formed in the creature’s throat. It took a step forward.
“I am Special Commander Garyl Shadowslayer of Blackwood’s 21st Northern Regiment,” Garyl lied. “I am on a special mission into the Dragonlands that is vital to the future of our nation. Whoever you are, you are not with your unit and have no business interfering with my mission. You. Will. Stand. Down!”
Please don’t let it have a keen sense of smell, Garyl silently prayed. He felt the cold sweat along his forehead and worried that the scent of his own fear might send the monster into a frenzy.
Thankfully, the creature obeyed its order. It stood up straight and raised a trembling, burned hand to the corner of its right eye, saluting what it deemed to be a superior officer. This only made Garyl feel worse—somebody remained within that charred body, but not enough of a person that they could be saved.
An explosion from the far north ended the standoff. Green fire lit up the sky in the direction of the battle which had consumed Garyl’s attention. The heroes had landed a decisive blow. Derrezen’s body shuddered and seemed to melt away into ash. From the tip of the dragon’s nose to the end of his massive wings, the green flame consumed his body. Blackened scales fell away from his form like ash, revealing something else underneath.
With one last roar the Dragon-God melted away into living flame—a dragon-shaped form that still moved, but lacked a skeletal structure or body of its own. The fire-beast made four strikes with its blazing claws and then dove downward upon the heroes, igniting the entire mountaintop in flame. But then the fire dissipated, and Derrezen was no more.
Silenced reigned in the Dragonlands. The creature looked at Garyl as though it expected an explanation as to what had just happened. Garyl frowned, knowing that he could say nothing to satisfy the monster—and that he couldn’t waste time trying to make it understand.
“I’m sorry for this,” he said softly. He released his blade and made a quick gesture with his fingers. Instead of falling to the ground, the sword rose up and flew forward on its own accord. The blade struck the creature directly in the chest, piercing its heart. Whatever mystical force had left the monster in its current sorry state had also burned away the armor that might have blocked the fatal blow.
The creature exhaled sharply and placed one rotted hand on the hilt of Garyl’s sword. It twitched once but didn’t struggle beyond that, instead sinking to the ground and lying still.
Garyl flicked his wrist, making a quick beckoning gesture. The sword shuddered and pulled free of the monster’s body, then flew back into its master’s waiting hand. With the deed done, Garyl turned and ran toward the battle site in the distance.
Had he been a religious man, he might have said a prayer for the person the monster had once been. But he wasn’t religious. He wasn’t much of anything, in fact—just a little late on heroics and very hopeful that piercing the creature’s heart would keep it down.
If he had hoped to find proud, conquering heroes or even somebody alive but in need of medical care, he had hoped for too much. An interminable climb up a desolate mountain left him exhausted and facing an empty battlefield. Bodies consumed in flame lay strewn about the summit, armor and weapons melted into slag around them. Black ash fell like snow from the sky—the last, horrible remains of the Dragon-God.
He looked at each body, trying to take in the details of their mangled faces. He inspected their possessions, hoping to find a keepsake or symbol that he could bring back to Blackwood—a relic to remember them by. But the same fire that had represented Derrezen’s dying breath had left nothing but melted weapons and burned flesh in its wake.
Something moved out of the corner of Garyl’s eye. He whirled around and drew his sword, half expecting that one of the heroes had now risen as a burned mockery of life similar to the one which had assaulted him in the riverbed. But it was nothing—just some ash stirred up by a gust of wind.
With a sigh, Garyl took one last look at the heroes of Blackwood and turned away, beginning a miles-long trek through the Dragonlands that would eventually bring him back to the safety of Blackwood’s borders. Nobody else would see the heroes of Blackwood like this. They could go on to become the legends they deserved to be—the slayers of the Dragon-God. Garyl himself could go on unnoticed by most, watching and studying from the shadows of history.