Sunday, May 24, 2015

Last of the King's Men, Chapter 13


The order rang out from Sir Tarrow's mouth as the Horselords of Eodon burst through the doorway of the Rusted Drake. The sun shone overhead, but despite the warm weather, the air in the square was eerily chill. In the middle of the square stood a massive beast, larger than anything Artemis Redsleeves had seen in his life. It was easily the height of two men, even when hunched over, and its muscular form could fill a room. Its body was covered in white scales that gleamed in the sun like polished steel, and its four legs were thick, wider than a man's waist, and each ended in massive talons bigger than any sword. Its sinewy tail swept to and fro, flicking clods of dirt each time it contacted the packed ground. Its massive wings, broad as a house, blocked out the sun. The creature's jaws, wide enough to crush a man in a single toothy bite, were slightly agape, and a fine mist was exhaled with each breath.

A dragon was attacking Kellonville. It had landed with hardly a sound despite its girth, and below its maw lay a human woman, barely moving, one hand feebly held between herself and the monstrosity. Its milky-white eyes were transfixed on her, and its mouth began to open wide.

An arrow flew from Sanna's bow the moment the beast came into view. Responding wordlessly to Sir Tarrow's order, she rolled sharply to the right of the tavern door and let fly another arrow. Both struck the serpentine plates covering its hide, shattering into a thousand pieces each. But she had accomplished something- the dragon turned its hideous head towards the knights, and let out a horrible roar that shook the surrounding buildings to their foundation.

Sir Tarrow drew his falchion, gesturing to invisible points on each side of the creature. Grash and Artemis ran to opposite sides, while Fru’al remained in the doorway to the tavern, blocking passage to beast and civilian alike. It was a scenario they had run through in combat training countless times over the past two years- one large opponent, open surroundings with minimal cover, possible civilian interference. Sanna was to circle at will, barraging the opponent with unfocused cover fire until positions had been reached, and then focus on penetrating and debilitating shots until the target was neutralized. Grash and Artemis were to begin on opposite sides, dividing the target's attention as much as possible. Fru’al, depending on his prepared spells, was to hinder the target, aid allies, control the environment, or contribute to damaging the target. Sir Tarrow was to provide support in whichever area was needed.

Surround and destroy.

Artemis already had his shield in hand, and with practiced autonomy strapped it to his arm to free that hand as he ran into position. The moment he finished, his sword slid from its sheath, and he caught a stray reflection from the sun in his eye as he closed in on the beast. He could see Grash pulling out his huge axe on the other side of the monster, Grash's own draconic features looking small and frail compared to this true dragon before him.

When finally in position, with this enormous winged beast towering over him, each ropey muscle daring any to challenge its strength, Artemis realized he was terrified. He had never seen something so massive, let alone fought it. And here, he was supposed to be drawing the dragon's attention. Even if he could threaten such a colossus, what was he supposed to do when he succeeded? Did he truly want such a monster's attention?

But his allies, his friends, his family needed him. Artemis readied his sword, and threw his arm forward into a weak leading shot, as he began most battles, to gauge his opponent's reaction time and to hopefully trick them into an over-reached block. His mind, in an instant, went through half a dozen scenarios that he had learned when dealing with humanoid opponents. The dragon might block the strike and create an opening that Artemis could exploit. The dragon might go on the defensive, making it difficult to find an opening, while simultaneously diverting enough attention to allow the other knights to lay waste to the beast. The dragon may even be resilient enough to simply stand fast and take the strike.

Instead, it brought its massive foreleg against Artemis' sword hard, easily knocking it back with enough power to almost knock the blade from his hand. It sent him reeling, and he barely had time to raise his shield as the great claw came down at him. The creature's talons pounded against the featureless steel of his shield, knocking him backward to the ground. As he hit the packed dirt of the square, he saw for the briefest of moments the beast raise its muscular body onto its hind legs- he instinctively rolled to the side as a massive clawed wing crashed against the ground a hair's width behind him. He jumped to his feet with a swing of his sword, aiming to pierce the dragon's leathery wing- but missed, just barely, as it returned to its quadrupedal stance.

Regaining his balance, Artemis readjusted his grip on his weapon, and took on a more defensive footing. The dragon took another swing of its great claw at him, which he deflected with a hard bash of his shield. As the blow bounced off his steel barrier, he used the opportunity to swing his sword downward at the clawed limb, dragging the sharpened blade across its white scales. He jumped back after the strike, shifting his balance again, and saw the deep rend he had left in the beast's arm. He breathed a sigh of relief at proof that this thing could be damaged, but he had to dodge another forceful blow before he had time to appreciate this fact. Even if he had cut the dragon's scales, it wasn't enough.

Artemis dodged left, feinted right. Whenever an opportunity presented itself, he threw a stab, or a chop, or a thrust at the creature's massive form. He could tell he wasn't causing much damage, but Tarrow had told him plenty of times that dealing damage wasn't always his job- as long as he was drawing some of the enemy's attention, he was contributing to their victory. His footwork and his swordplay was getting into a perfect rhythm, and Artemis began to tune out all of the distractions around him. The screaming townsfolk, the sun beating down, the unseasonable chill in the air, the clouds of dust swept up with each movement of the dragon's body- nothing else existed except Artemis and this opponent. Artemis, this opponent, and his allies-

Artemis' eyes opened wide, and he realized he had been blocking out too much. Fru’al stood in front of the Rusted Drake, his plain staff raised above his head, his free hand dancing around in every direction. The square surrounding the battle was no longer open- several clouds of smoke had risen from the ground, taking the form of giant hands, pushing away and blocking the sight of any bystanders that hadn't already fled. Sanna was running circles around the dragon, releasing another volley of arrows- most of which deflected off the creature's brilliant scales. Its head was constantly darting back and forth, keeping its eyes trained on her- every time she stopped for even a moment, its mouth would open, and a blast of freezing mist would threaten to envelop her. Sir Tarrow had rescued the screaming woman from beneath the behemoth, and stood between her and the monster with his blade in hand as she cowered in fear. His voice rang clearly through the square as he issued orders- orders which Artemis hadn't been following- and calling out to Grash. Grash, who was… where was he?

Artemis held his shield sturdy to block another claw attack, and felt his feet slide through the talon-raked dirt. He looked up, too late, too distracted, and took the full brunt of one of the dragon's wings as the appendage crashed into him, knocking him several feet backwards onto the ground. As he felt his back scrape against the rocky floor, he realized he had made a fatal mistake. He had underestimated this monster- he thought he had been drawing its attention, when all he had succeeded in doing was soaking up one of its many attacks.

"Get up, you lazy bastard!"

It was Sir Tarrow. He had stepped in, swinging his wide falchion furiously to provide cover.

"I can't lose both of my meat shields in one day! Now get up!"

Feeling renewed motivation, Artemis scrambled to his feet, and saw, lying on the ground just past the dragon's wildly swinging tail, Grash's heavy form, lying on the ground, his axe tossed away, blood beginning to pool on the ground around him.

This is all my fault, thought Artemis. I've failed. We're all going to die, right here, because of me.

Sir Tarrow landed one solid blow on the dragon's side as Sanna ran past, letting fly another round of arrows. The beast pulled its head back, taking in a deep breath as it covered itself with its wings. Artemis barely had time to react as it brought its head back into view, and its mouth opened wide enough to fit a man's torso between its jaws. In an instant, a tornado of ice blew the three knights backwards, the very air freezing and covering them all with a sheet of rime. They all stood there, off-balance and momentarily frozen, as the dragon reared back on its hind legs, ready to pounce.

Before it could pounce, however, three streaking balls of light shot across the square, colliding with the dragon's chest. As they exploded, the creature turned to face their origin, its silvery eyes freezing cold with anger. Fru’al stood in the doorway of the tavern, his staff pointed directly at the monster before him. The staff's tip glowed menacingly, and the clouds surrounding the town square began to dissipate. The white lizard let out an ear-splitting roar, and turned to face the aging spellcaster- but before it could advance, Artemis was shocked to see Grash, axe in hand, standing in its way. The breastplate of his armor had a huge tail-sized hole in it, as well as his tunic beneath that, but his red scaly chest was whole.

What just happened?

Grash stood his ground, letting out a draconic roar of his own. He took a deep breath, and belched a gout of flame right in the dragon's face, leaving its ivory scales blackened with char. Before the flame could even clear, Grash leapt forward, burying his axe in the monster's scaly chest. As the blow collided, his axe let out a brilliant flash the color of the sun.

Shaking off the chill of the dragon's freezing breath, Artemis ran forward to join Grash in the fray. As he did, he caught sight of the dragon's backside- where the Horselord had already left half a dozen axe-wounds, and its dark red blood was cascading down its shining scales. With renewed confidence, Artemis danced back and forth with his draconic ally in front of this beast, deflecting claws and wings and the occasional tail sweep. Sanna was once again darting around the battlefield, shooting arrow after arrow into the opponent's weak points. Tarrow continued to circle around, providing assistance when possible, but mostly directing the others' tactics. Fru’al remained on the periphery, using his magic to close off the battlefield- though Artemis wasn't sure whether he was trying to keep the townsfolk away, or the dragon in.

Artemis and Grash left wound after wound on the beast's hide, and they could feel the battle becoming more and more tense. Both sides were losing steam, and both sides were becoming more and more sloppy. Grash missed with a particularly powerful swing, and was knocked off balance. Artemis saw- almost a moment too late- the dragon lunge its head at him, jaws open, ready to tear the draconian in half. Acting purely on instinct, Artemis grabbed his sword in both hands and swung upwards with all of the power he could muster. His blade collided with the dragon's face, slicing through to its jawbone, and knocking the dragon's aim off by inches. Those inches were just enough- instead of catching its prey in its mouth, the predator's snout collided with the armored knight's body, knocking him back. But, most importantly, he was still alive.

The squire took a second too long to rejoice in his personal victory, however, and the dragon used that opportunity to sweep him off his feet with its thick, ropey tail. It raised a claw high overhead, and stomped down on Artemis' body.

He screamed in pain as he felt the bones in his body strain under the pressure. He coughed blood, and tried to move, feebly, as the dragon lifted its claw high, ready to stomp one final time. Artemis was unable to move, unable to defend himself, and he knew it was all over.


A woman's voice. Suddenly, there was no pain. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as he took a deep breath, raised his shield arm, and hammered his elbow back onto the hard ground, propelling himself sideways, out of the way of the crushing dragon's claw. He leapt to his feet once again as time returned to normal, and saw the muscled talons leave a deep claw-shaped imprint in the packed earth where he had just been. He didn't know what happened, or how he was suddenly healed, but he- and the dragon- didn't have the time to find out.

Grash ran to meet Artemis, and swung another wide arc with his axe at the dragon, missing by a hair. The beast drew its head back, taking another deep breath, readying another tornado of frozen wind. Artemis, seeing this coming, jumped in front of Grash, raising his shield above his head and crouching behind it.

"Duck!" Artemis yelled, and Grash obeyed just in time. Another blast of freezing air filled the square around them, and Artemis ripped the buckles off his shield arm and dropped the dented, frozen sheet of steel to the ground. It had withstood the brunt of that icy gale, and he could feel the skin on his arm frozen solid just from the contact. He looked up, expecting the dragon to use that opportunity to tear him apart- except it didn't. The beast used that opportunity to disengage- it turned its massive form towards Sanna, who was standing on the far side of the square, another set of arrows nocked and ready to fire.

The giant monster charged her, dozens of arrows already lodged between its scales, and thick red blood seeping from wounds all over its body. It pounced in front of the edhel, jaws wide open, and only missed her because of her natural quickness. Any other man, certainly any of the Horselords, would have met their end. But she rolled out of the way, and then vanished.

The dragon spent a moment frantically glancing in every direction for its lost quarry, and before it could locate her, two more arrows landed in one of the wounds Grash had created moments before. It turned and saw her, standing atop a shop's roof thirty feet away, and it roared in anger and frustration.

The dragon roared again and again, its terrifying eyes racing around the square. It was making a decision, Artemis knew.

Fight or flight.

It pounced straight up, its massive wings beating the air and creating a cloud of dust. It climbed higher, higher still, until it was gone.

Almost gone.

Sanna aimed one more arrow. She watched the dragon climb into the sky. She watched the movement of its wings, the currents in the air. She let that arrow fly.

The behemoth fell to the ground with a sickening crash, landing flat in the middle of the square.

The dragon was dead.

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