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Saturday, August 24, 2013

Facing the Cave

This flash fiction story originally appeared in MindFlights. The magazine is no longer active though the story still shows up. This is one of my allegorical fantasies.

"And though countless have tried," the bard said to the tavern audience, "The dragon that never dies continues to devour all who come to its cave."

Galak clapped with the people but noticed Sir Humblart, his teacher and friend, stared as if into another world. When Galak saw Sir Humblart's jaw set, he knew the story had stirred a desire in his master. Galak took another gulp from his stein in hopes of numbing the rising fear.

Sir Humblart rose from his seat. "Come, Squire. We have a dragon to slay."

The bard laughed. "Didn't you hear me? This dragon is death itself. No man can defeat death."

Sir Humblart smiled and his eyes lit as they always did when he would say something of importance. "Correct: no man can if no one attempts it."

"Attempt away! The dragon is always hungry." Laughter erupted from the patrons.

Sir Humblart nodded. "And if I return from death, then what?"

The bard stumbled over words, then blurted out, "I'll believe that when I see it!" More guffaws arose.

Sir Humblart downed the last of his ale and motioned for Galak to follow.

After grabbing supplies, Sir Humblart led Galak through the forest toward the undefeated foe.

"Sir, I have your sword," Galak said.

Sir Humblart didn't turn his head. "I'll have no cause for such weapons. Keep hold of it. You will need it."

Their feet crunched the dirt and dried leaves on the forest floor as they pushed toward—what? His death? Galak watched the armor-clad knight marching resolutely to face the monster that had sent so many to hell's gates. No hint of fear twitched across his face. No evidence of second thoughts surfaced in those coal-black, unblinking eyes.

In due time, they entered the clearing where the dragon's cave bore into the mountain. Strewn across the knoll lay scorched armor and rusted swords. Bones rested thick across the grass, piled by the cave opening. Many lives had been spent attempting to destroy the dragon.

A roar erupted from beneath the earth, and the ground shook. Smoke belched from the entrance as if dust long undisturbed exploded from its cloisters. Mournful cries underlay the horrific noise; Galak wanted to cry with them.

Galak fled behind a tree as he watched the beast burst from the cave and land a few feet from Sir Humblart. A mélange of greens and browns shimmered in the sunlight on its hide. The slender body tapered to a tail, which whipped to and fro. The other end held aloft a neck three times as long as any man's body. At the end of the neck, a broad head examined Sir Humblart with fiery eyes, and a forked tongue lashed the air.

"Sir, flee before it's too late," Galak yelled out.

Sir Humblart turned to Galak. "To free them, I must die." He faced the dragon, his feet together, lifted his arms as if to fly, and cast his head forward.

Now Galak knew his master had lost his mind. Perhaps the villagers brewed a stouter ale than they realized. He cowered behind the tree as a deafening roar caused him to cover his ears in pain. But he couldn't remove his gaze from Sir Humblart.

The beast's head dove, and its open mouth scooped in Sir Humblart. Its head flung back. Galak watched as a bulge slid down the dragon's neck. Apparently satisfied with its meal, the dragon lumbered to the cave.

Galak's stomach twisted, and bile rose up his throat. Hot tears rolled down his cheeks. Then he remembered: he still had the sword. He could yet save his master and friend. An attempt likely ending in death, but love demanded no less. He steeled himself, unsheathed the weapon, drew himself to his feet, and prepared to charge.

The dragon halted before reaching the cave. A mournful cry shattered the air, and the dragon thrashed about, as if attempting to throw an invisible rider. It spun and writhed until another shriek filled Galak's ears. He fell to his knees; the sword dropped to the ground.

The dragon teetered and fell over onto its side with a ground-shaking crash. Galak peered at it, but the dragon no longer moved.

The ground rumbled until a blast of air exploded from the cave and twirled into a vortex. Galak swore he heard joyous singing within the gale. The bones around him rattled before the swirling wind sucked them into its grip, and they flew beyond the mountain and into the sky.

The pull of the music and push of the wind encouraged Galak. He crept toward the beast, eying it through wind-whipped hair, ready to flee, but it did not move. Not until Galak came close enough, did he see a bulge pushing against the skin.

He gasped and stumbled in haste to retrieve the sword. He raced back to the carcass and swung the sword two-handed upon the base of the neck. Green blood spewed forth, and with it the dragon's body vomited out Sir Humblart, covered in chunky, pea-green slime.

In his acid-seared hand, Sir Humblart held a heart the size of a grown man's head. He arose and cast a bright gaze upon Galak.

"No man can escape death. It can only be defeated from within. And now, I have destroyed it." Sir Humblart cast the heart into the cave.

Galak's pulse quickened as Sir Humblart's eyes pierced through him. The master turned and proceeded down the path to the village.

Galak followed, as he had always done—but now, through death to life.

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