He sat atop the building in the middle of the small town. Some of them targeted cities, seeming to prefer the molten metal, glass, and synthetic building materials, eating the ash of the bones of people and cars and skyscrapers. They were smaller, tended to travel in packs, and attacked without warning. No city had been safe. New York looked as though Russia had set upon her with its entire arsenal.
The one he waited for was far bigger than the ones who attacked the cities. Most often male, but always bigger, and always alone. They were cat-like, preferring territory to ash quantity, they terrorized countrysides, tormenting people and live stock far and wide. You could hear them coming, for the kind he waited for were old with leathery wings made into tatters from so many battles for their territory. They sounded like gigantic sheets blowing in afternoon winds, as they glided toward their prey, making a sport of it all, keeping themselves within the cover of the dark clouds that followed them, until the very last second, and then the world before them would burn.
Some speculated they’d come from below the earth, some far above it; some schools of thought believed they’d come from Mars, as recent orbital trajectories had been altered when a planet, before only imagined, had appeared from a wide, elliptical path, and Mars had been forced to shift toward the Earth, bringing the two dangerously close. Tides had, for a time, shifted, causing massive flooding in coastal areas worldwide, as well as knocking out the internet, phone service, and television programming for hours at a time at seemingly random intervals.
He didn’t know where they’d come from. Nor did he much care. He was too young; he’d always known them, always had known that his morbid fascination of them would lead him to do something utterly idiotic like this.
Creatures of Legend the world over.
He would kill one, it had been a recurring dream since he’d seen the first of them. And he would die in order to live that dream.
But how does a young man in the middle of nowhere slay a dragon? He’d imagined thousands of myopic ways, involving swords, missiles, guns, his own Ford truck, and a host of other options that he’d been forced to laugh away.
Poison. There was no other way to fight such a thing, out in the Hinterlands where the local army is volunteer, and already past-tense. So he’d sought out the scientist, and the scientist had already created such a poison, having the same thought as himself. If perhaps a slight difference in the method of delivery of this poison.
The scientist had many plans as to delivery. All involving intricate details that would have worked in years before, yet he knew now, as the dragons spread like a plague, required too much of too many people, most of them possessing spirits long broken by the demonic creatures.
There was only one sure way: infect the regional Alpha male. The poison was a long game strategy because it did not kill the male, it merely inserted a genetic sequence into his own biology through his blood. The male would mate with perhaps hundreds of females in the next year alone, and his seed would deliver the code that would rewrite the species’ DNA, destroying them from the inside out. But the brilliant concoction was more advanced than this.
It had been programmed to guarantee the survival of a certain number of healthy dragons, male-only, in the hopes that these males, desiring by their instinct to preserve their species, would leave the infected areas and migrate to healthier locations, spreading the poison further and further from the original territory of the first infected male, in the hopes of killing as many dragons as possible.
He only hoped that it could do all that the scientist had promised.
Crows began to appear. First, perhaps ten or fifteen, and then hundreds of them dropped from the dark clouds and cawed their way past in droves. Then smaller birds. A mere one hundred feet below him, he saw all manner of domestic and feral wildlife fleeing in the same direction as the birds. He thought he could perhaps hear the tattered wings high above.
He’d spoken with both a metallurgist and gunsmith about a way to get the dragon’s attention. The sniper rifle next to him was loaded with rounds made of a mixture of alloys, all specially tailored to hurt the beast a lot. No bullet could kill the things, but the ones in his rifle could sting it enough to get it to turn around and find out what could possibly be powerful enough to cause it pain. Dragons, for good reason, considered pain inflicted by humans to be especially insulting.
The wind howled above him. A few miles in front of him, he saw the clouds being disturbed. Finally, the wings began to whip the whole of the sky into a dark, whirling frenzy, as the massive creature dropped low toward the earth.
He was in awe, every time, no matter how many of them that he’d seen.
Fire blasted from the clouds, as the dragon began to burn the field below it, full of cattle and sheep so panic stricken that they trample each other as they burn.
The whole sight sickens him to watch. But at least he can see now, as it swoops down to feed, that the dragon is an Alpha male. The deep, blood-red scales, its sheer size (three times the size of the average beta male, five times larger than the average female), and the color of its fire (blue, as opposed to orange); he is both elated and terrified, for now his dream is bound to fruition by the specifics of his reality.
The sniper rifle is put into position and he readies himself, changing his breathing, his perspective, throttling his terror as best he can. Because within that terror he finds abandon to the desire he’d possessed all of his life to see and to kill that thing he fears. With such powerful emotions, he knows, his aim will never be close to true.
Once behind the scope, he does the calculations himself, because he can afford no spotter. A spotter would try and talk him out of it, try and convince him of some other, more rational, way. Rationalizations are the last thing the dying world needs, he knows. It needs results.
He watches as the great dragon feeds on the bones and ash, finally turning its massive head and body in his direction: town square.
The wings beat the air, the black clouds swirl everywhere, mixing with gray fog, smoke, and fire. He watches it all through the scope, and more than once swears that the dragon looks directly at him, into his own scope.
The air howls with the whining of the dragon’s tattered wings. He watches its trajectory. It inches closer into his crosshairs. Target.
He fires. The gun kicks. The dragon howls. He adjusts. He breathes. He puts weight on the trigger slowly. Fires. The beast howls again, shifting out of his scope, up into the dark clouds. He looks away from the scope, rolls over onto his back, and knows that the bullets had the absolute effect desired.
The ground shakes. He can feel the vibrations of the building as he lay on his back.
He rolls over and watches, in awe, as the fog, smoke, and mist swirls in front of him, in front of the big bank building on the square where he set himself.
The head of the dragon appears to him slowly. The eyes glow blue, the mouth—full with teeth so sharp and precisely arranged that it makes his skin crawl—vibrates with the same hue, as the dragon’s fire burns not far below that maw.
That head continues to lift, higher and higher above him, until finally, he stumbles twice, then stands to his feet, staring upward at the demon that has haunted his own imagination all of his life.
The voice is staggering to him, so deep that his ears should not have been able to register the tones, and he wasn’t certain that this was necessary as well, for that voice boomed inside his own head, his mind.
“Who are you,” the dragon chided.
He, of course, could venture no thing like words at that moment.
The dragon basked in his awe, giving him time. He was thankful for their Hubris at that moment.
“Have no fear, human,” the dragon said. “Speak. Speak your mind, for you have power, this my wounds speak to me.”
He mustered all that he had inside him. The words croaked out.
“You are… I have dreamt… Dragon, you are magnificent, there is no question.”
The fog and smoked swirled away from and around the building as the dragon backed its head away, clearly surprised at the response. He swore that the dragon grinned.
“Well,” it boomed, “you slugs can grasp protocol, it seems. I find myself almost glad that you shot me, impudent twerp. Tell me more.”
He took a deep breath. “May I sit down?”
The dragon said, “By all means.”
He sat down and composed himself as best he could.
The dragon lounged like a great cat in front of the bank building. It was so large that from this position, its head was still at least fifty feet above the building when its neck was fully stretched. He had to convince himself to detach from it all; to convince himself that it was all some sort of living dream, and thus to go on as though it was something normal. But the task was more than a bit difficult.
“Most of my life,” he said, “I’ve wondered what this moment might be like. You’ll be happy to note that I am terrified beyond words, and yet I am also happy to find that your intellect clearly lives up to all that I’ve heard.”
This time he knew it: the dragon grinned. The expression was so human that it bothered him.
“I am wise beyond your ken,” the dragon said. “I did not know that any of you slugs were aware any longer of the Old Ways. This is interesting.”
The dragon swirled again the smoke and clouds as it lifted its tail high into the sky. He could barely see it, save for the whirlwinds it conjured up in that smoke. He watched as it loomed in the air, high above him, and nearly fell down as he watched it descend toward and behind him. The building again shook when the multi-spiked end of that tail rested on the gravel roof behind him.
He almost chuckled. The dragon knew precisely how to present itself.
“Why did you fire on me, human? Not once, but twice you managed to put a very effective arrow into my scales, but I cannot help but to question why.”
Earlier, he had taken the poison and shot it into his own body with a syringe. The dragon’s words slurred in his mind for a moment. The poison would kill him soon, so he had to work faster now, he understood.
“To taunt you,” he said.
The dragon raised a left eyebrow the size of a tractor-trailer rig.
“I wanted you to know,” he said, “that a slug of a human could hurt you.”
The dragon began to rise up out of its lounging position. He nearly fell down backwards again, due to having to look so far above him and the quickening effects of the poison.
“I wanted you to know,” he yelled, “that you, oh god that you think you are, are not invincible! I won’t bow to you, worm!”
That did it: worm. Dragons hated that term. It was an affront to them, powerful as they were, to be compared in the slightest to a dirt-channeling, blind creature with no will at all.
The dragon roared. He could feel the warmth as blood ran from his right ear.
The moment was upon him.
As the dragon reached its full height, he reached down and grabbed up his rifle. He yanked the bolt, tilted it upward, and fired a round into the soft area on the underside of the dragon’s jaw. Its head whipped downward and the blue eyes flamed in intensity.
He chambered another round.
He fired again.
The smoke and clouds whirled once again as the dragon’s mouth opened, full of teeth and blue fire, and it devoured him. The dragon swallowed its prey, none the wiser, and burned away town square like so much kindling.