Lucius plans a heist of insane proportions - no less than a dragon's hoard; by Kyle Anthony Massa.
He hunched over a creaking table in the aptly named Ramshackle Inn with three other men huddled in close around him. Each had an expression of sudden and absolute attention, and for good reason. If there was one topic that captured a listener's ear in a place like the Ramshackle, it was talk of riches.
"How much treasure?" whispered the man to Lucius's right. His name was Spider - at least, that's what he told Lucius his name was. He was small, barely taller than five feet, with a pig nose and a missing right ear. He was dumber than dung and smelled worse, but he was the best Lucius could come up with. And besides, a nice hunk of meat couldn't hurt on this sort of mission - even it was unwashed.
"More'n you've ever seen, Spider. I promise you that."
"And how do we split it?" This from the man seated at the opposite side of the table. He and the fellow beside him were mirror images of one another, except that one had blood red hair, and the other had tar black hair.
Lucius stared them down icily. He was far older than anyone else at the table, and he'd seen his share of thieves. He'd seen stealthy thieves, patient thieves, stupid thieves, thieves looking to make names for themselves. He already knew what kind these twins were: the selfish kind - the kind that doesn't want to work with anyone, except maybe each other. The selfish thief is the worst sort, even worse than the fame seeker. Thievery requires many men working together and executing a plan as a unit. Any deviation from the plan leads only to disaster, even death. As the old proverb goes, "the lone thief is no thief at all."
Normally, Lucius wouldn't have hired two men like these twins. At least Spider had the decency to give a name, even if it was a false one. These twins didn't even do that, just referred to each other as "brother."
They were dangerous, true. But this was a dangerous job. No sane man would try it, and that left only the insane. Lucius laughed bitterly to himself. He was beginning to question his own sanity for coming up with the plan in the first place.
Just then, a boy strode up to the table with four mugs clutched awkwardly in his hands. He was small, even for a boy, at least a head-and-a-half shorter than Spider. His hair stood up in a wild tangle, so blond that it almost looked like gold. He distributed the drinks to each man, then pulled up a chair and sat down.
"Greetings, gentlemen," he chirped with a wide grin. "Consider these a good luck gift."
"Who the hell are you?" sneered the black-haired twin.
The boy continued to smile, even as he spoke. "Henry Stormbright of the Wildlands. I'm the last member of this merry band."
"Stormbright?" The red haired-twin squinted at Henry. "Never heard the name."
Henry shrugged. "Not yet, maybe. But you'll remember it."
Spider took a sip of his drink, then winced and peered into his mug. "This ale is awfully sweet," he complained.
"It's a local brew," the boy said matter-of-factly.
"Stormbright's worked for me for years," said Lucius. "He's good. He's damn good. Probably better'n the lot of you. Now let's talk business, shall we?"
He pointed to a map laid upon the table. The stained canvas depicted a tall black mountain cloaked in mist, steam rising from within. "We need two men at the back entrance, and then two more through the front. One more to distract the guardian."
It was a simple plan, true enough. But Lucius found that simple procedures worked best with this sort of venture. Too intricate a plan would likely lead to confusion, and confusion would just as likely lead to failure.
And failure, in this case, meant death.
A quiet lingered about the table. Every man exchanged uneasy glances, all except Stormbright, who only smiled to himself. The black-haired twin sipped nervously from his mug.
Finally, Spider broke the silence. "I've heard of that particular guardian before." The others nodded in silent agreement. Spider looked to each man, then cracked a nervous smile. "What poor bastard gets to distract him?" He seemed to be trying to make a joke of it, but no one was laughing.
Lucius leaned back in his chair. "I was thinkin' that'd be you, Spider."
"Me? Well, I - I think we should dr - draw straws or something. At least to make it... fair."
"Draw straws?" spat the black-haired twin. "We'd be drawing for our lives!"
"Aye, you would be." Lucius gave each man a hard look. "But I ain't goin' to lie to you boys. Someone's gonna die, maybe even two of us, or three, or all. Don't matter. If it was easy, then it wouldn't be worth the prize."
"I can't," said Spider, standing on weak legs, "I - I can't..."
"Sit down," Lucius hissed. He wrenched the small man back into his seat. "You knew what you were signin' up for, all of you. This ain't no empty mansion, or some fool on the street. This is a real theft, boys, one they'll be tellin' stories about for as long as they tell stories."
"Then tell us exactly what we're getting," said the black-haired twin impatiently. "What do we win for our troubles?"
Lucius couldn't hold back a grin. "Gold, gentlemen. And lots of it."
Spider sat forward, drooling ever so slightly, apparently forgetting his previous attempt to leave. "Gold, you said?"
"Aye. Gold, I said. More'n you've ever seen in all your miserable lives combined."
"I like the sound of that," said the red-haired twin, nodding to himself.
"Good. We're in agreement, then."
Lucius produced a contract from his coat pocket and passed it around the table. Spider glanced at the parchment, curled his lip, then signed carefully. Lucius watched him while he did it, quite certain the man couldn't read a letter. The black-haired twin scanned the parchment, signed dramatically, then passed it on to his red-headed brother. He looked it over with narrowed eyes, sipping at his ale.
"There's one item we've forgotten. Who will be the first man in?"
They all looked around, each waiting for another to volunteer.
"I'll do it."
All turned to see the smiling face of Henry Stormbright, looking impossibly confident.
Lucius grinned. "See what I told you? The boy's fearless!"
For countless years, the dragon had waited for a visitor.
Long ago, back when it was young, many a knight had come to test his steel, looking to earn a grand title by slaying a dragon. After all, in the stories, the knight always wins, and the dragon always loses.
But much to the surprise of those unfortunate souls, this particular dragon was far more resilient than its fictional counterparts. Each knight who entered its cave earned the same title, and that title was always "The Charred and Devoured."
The dragon had come to enjoy its little skirmishes - well, meals, really. They gave it something to do while it wasn't counting its gold or organizing its artifacts. But soon the knights came less frequently, and then rarely, and then not at all. Life in the mountain became lonely. Peaceful, yes - but terribly lonely. The dragon laid among its gold for what seemed like an eternity, with nothing to do and no one to entertain it. The cave became a solitary cell.
Sometimes it wished for an end to the waiting. Not death, necessarily, but the thought had crossed its mind more than once. In the end, it had abandoned the idea altogether. How does a dragon go about committing suicide, anyway?
The dragon had been waiting for so long that it wasn't even sure if its legs still worked, or its wings. Even if it could get them unfurled - which was an unlikely proposition to begin with - it doubted that they'd ever be fit for flight again. So the dragon just sat, and slept, and dreamed, and waited.
That is, until the boy came along.
All humans are small in the eyes of a dragon. But this one was tiny, bite-sized, just a mere speck among the dunes of treasure. He was little more than a child, with hair so blond that it looked almost like gold. He wore all black and carried nothing but a walking stick in his right hand. The dragon might not have noticed him at all if the boy hadn't knocked over a pile of coins on his way into the chamber.
"Hello?" The word came out barely louder than a whisper from the dragon's parched lips. It ran its scaly tongue across them, then tried again. "Who goes there?"
"Greetings." The boy showed not the slightest hint of fear, which struck the dragon as quite odd. If it remembered correctly, everyone was afraid of dragons. But for some reason, the boy actually seemed quite pleased. He grinned from ear to ear.
"Can you not see me?" asked the dragon. Perhaps that was the reason for the boy's strange reaction. "Is it too dark?"
"I can see you just fine, big lad. You're tough to miss."
The dragon blinked. "You see me, but you do not fear me?"
"I can't say that I do." The boy continued to grin. "You must be the guardian." He swept his eyes over the gold and jewels and trinkets and artifacts. "And this must be the treasure."
"I am. And it is." The dragon lifted its rectangular head, its long neck clicking and groaning with the effort. Gold coins peeled from its chin and clinked onto the pile below. When was the last time it had lifted its head? Was it when that rat tried to run off with that pendant? No, no, longer ago than that...
"Pleased to meet you, big lad. I'm Henry Stormbright of the Wildlands."
"Stormbright?" The dragon thought for a moment, but nothing came. "I've not heard the name."
"It's made up, being honest. Thought it sounded like an adventurer's name."
"You're an adventurer, then?"
"Something like that." The boy stooped and examined a golden goblet, tracing its rim with a short finger. "Is all this yours?"
"Once it belonged to others. Now it belongs to me."
"You stole it, then?"
The dragon smiled slightly. "How else does a dragon come across treasure?"
"Who did you steal it from?"
"Men. Or perhaps Elves, or Dwarves, or Goblins. I must confess, Henry Stormbright, I've forgotten."
"Fair enough." The boy studied the goblet a moment longer, then gently placed it back down. "I plan to take it. All of it."
"Truly?" The dragon could not help but grin. For a moment, it considered just eating the boy right then. He was small, but he would do for a nice snack, much better than the rats and insects that inhabited the cave. But the dragon hadn't had a visitor in so long, and the boy seemed like good fun. "I've been waiting a hundred years to hear someone say that."
"And now I have."
The dragon nodded slowly. "And now you have. But I must ask, young Stormbright. How do you plan on accomplishing such a heroic and daring feat?"
The boy grinned wider than ever. "Have you ever heard of dragonsbane?"
The dragon shook its head.
"Yes, I suppose you wouldn't have. It's a flower from the east, only recently acquired through trade. Very expensive. The nectar of the dragonsbane flower is noted for its incredibly sweet taste, and for that reason is sometimes used in cooking. It can linger in a man's body for months after it's consumed, but that makes no matter. You see, it's quite harmless to humans, and dogs, and birds, and really anything that isn't a dragon. But to the dragon..." The boy left the rest unsaid.
"And that's how you'll kill me?"
The boy nodded. "Yes, dragon. That's how I'll kill you."
Meanwhile, outside, Spider gripped the face of the mountain, breathing hard. It was slow going. He'd been quite the climber as a boy, but this smooth rock was giving him trouble. Old Lucius was having little more luck. The surface was slick with rainwater from earlier in the day, and they had to take extra care not to lose their grip. A fall from this height would end in a bloody smear on the ground below.
"What do you think Henry's doing in there?" Spider asked.
The older man said nothing. Spider had the strong sense that Lucius didn't particularly like him, but he always tried to make conversation with his employers when he could, whether or not they were fond of him. That way, it was easier to get them to let their guard down. Even a little false stupidity worked wonders, just so long as no one suspected his true motives.
"Lucius?" Spider whined. "Lucius, did you hear me?"
"Yes, I heard you!"
"What do you think, then?"
"What do I think of what?"
"Of Henry." Spider did his best to sound hurt. "What do you think he's doing?"
Lucius reached and gripped a rock, then heaved himself upward. "Probably bein' eaten," he grunted bitterly.
"Eaten? Do you really think that?"
"No, you stupid bastard! I think you should shut your mouth an' climb, that's what I think!"
For a time, neither of them spoke. After a half hour more of climbing, they found it: a little ledge carved out of the rock face with a narrow passageway burrowing into the mountain. Spider pulled himself onto the ledge and sat there, catching his breath. Lucius emerged a moment later, pouring sweat and panting like a dog.
"Tough... climb," Spider managed to say between gasps. Lucius only shook his head and cursed under his breath. They sat there for a moment, looking down over the ledge at the forest below. Spider couldn't remember a time when he'd been so high.
"Long way down, eh?" He looked back and smiled, but found only Lucius's stony face. The old man stood and marched to the mouth of the passage without a word.
"Lucius? Are we going inside? Aren't we supposed to wait until Henry has the dragon under control? Until nightfall?" Spider glanced back at the sun. It was fat and crimson, still more than half visible.
"We've been waiting long enough," Lucius snarled over his shoulder.
Spider sprung to his feet and followed. He could tell that Lucius was getting angrier, losing his focus.
That was good. That was very good.
Outside the entrance to the cave, the twins waited. The one with the red hair was seated on a boulder, reading a thick leather-bound book. The twin with the black dueled an imaginary foe with a gilded sword.
"It's time to move," he blurted. "I want my treasure, dammit."
"No, brother. Not yet." The red-haired twin peered over his book at the sinking sun, watching it slowly dip below the horizon. "We enter at nightfall."
"At nightfall," scoffed the black-haired brother. "That's too long. The old one and the smelly one won't even be in position until sometime tomorrow afternoon, I'm sure."
The twin with the red hair closed his book and sighed, keeping a thumb on his page. "Were you not listening when we went over this earlier?"
The black-haired twin paused his swordplay. "Of course not."
His brother rolled his eyes. "Do try to pay attention in the future. We go in at the same time as the others. We let the old man deal with the dragon, and when they're both dead, we kill anyone else who isn't already dead, and then we take the treasure for ourselves."
"As boring a plan as I've ever heard." The black-haired twin paused, leaning on his sword and wiping sweat from his brow. "Where's the fun in it? Where are the heroics? What are we supposed to do until then?"
The red-haired twin went back to his book. "We wait, brother. We wait."
Henry smiled at the dragon. They'd been going back and forth now for a good hour or so. Not much longer to wait, he guessed.
"Is it true that you've eaten a thousand men?"
"More, I'd guess. A few women, too, though I'm not certain of that number, either." The dragon gave Henry a good, long look. "What's to say I won't eat you?"
"If you wanted to, you would've done it already. Truth be told, I think you're too old for it."
The dragon chuckled, its old lungs rumbling like thunder. "You amuse me, young Stormbright."
"Do I?" Henry grinned. "I find you amusing as well." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a dark shape detach itself from the wall.
Finally. They'd taken long enough.
"How do I amuse you?" asked the dragon. The shape darted along a stone staircase carved into the chamber wall, padding down the steps without a sound.
"Because, dragon..." The shape crept up behind the beast, sword raised, "...your past victories have made you arrogant. You think that you're immortal. But you are not."
The shape's blade surged through the air and fell point-first upon the dragon's back. It was Lucius, his face screwed up in concentration, the veins in his thick arms bulging. He flew backward when his sword struck home, a mighty clang reverberating off the walls. The blade shattered like glass, sending a shower of fine steel shards into the air.
Suddenly, the chamber grew very quiet. The dragon peered down at its attacker, then at Henry.
"Am I not immortal?"
Just then, another shape emerged from the darkness, this one small and quick. It lunged - but not at the dragon. Instead, the figure's knife plunged deep into Lucius' back. The old man fell to a knee, gasping. The figure stepped out from the shadows, and Henry saw that it was Spider. Yet, somehow, this was no longer the mewling coward he'd been before.
"I suppose I owe you thanks, old man," Spider said triumphantly. "You killed the dragon, and now I get the satisfaction of killing you."
"Sorry to disappoint," grunted Lucius through gritted, blood soaked teeth, "but the dragon ain't dead."
Realization came to Spider, but too late. He threw up his hands as if to ward off an attacker, but that made no difference to the dragon. Two rows of curved teeth closed around him like a bear trap, cracking his bones into dust. He didn't even have time to scream.
The dragon munched on its prize thoughtfully. "Hmm. Not bad. A bit too sweet for my tastes, but... not bad." It swallowed contentedly, then snatched Lucius and popped him into its mouth with all the casualness of a man at dinner. "Better. Much better. Still sweet, but thankfully, this one actually bathed from time to time."
Henry watched all this from afar, still smiling.
"Any more?" asked the dragon.
As if on cue, the black-haired twin came barreling into the cave, making a line for Henry, swinging his sword like a madman. The boy leapt nimbly out of the way, then rolled into a crouch, ready for another attack. The red-haired twin came in behind his brother, but stopped short, staring wide-eyed.
"The dragon," he whispered. "They didn't kill the dragon."
This time, the beast didn't even bother to chew. The black-haired twin could only watch as his brother slid between rows of yellow teeth, then vanished altogether.
He stood there for a moment, jewel-laden sword still gripped tightly in his hands, mouth frozen in a snarl.
"Brother," he whispered.
He charged at the dragon, sword raised like some knight of old. Henry had to admit that he looked glorious in that final moment. The twin swung once, missing wide - and just like that, his charge was ended. With a shriek, he was bitten in half, splashing blood all over the walls of the cave. The dragon ate everything: man, sword, and armor.
That left just little Henry. The beast stared at him thoughtfully, picking flesh from its teeth with a cracked claw. "You can try to run now if you'd like, young Stormbright. I'll give you a head start."
"No need," said Henry. "It's already over."
The dragon tilted its head in confusion. Then the tilt became a sag, and the sag became a collapse. It laid down upon its bed of gold, now for the last time.
"I feel... odd," it muttered.
And as life began to give way to death, realization dawned on the dragon. It could not help but smile at the clever simplicity of the boy's plan, even as it slipped away, and finally, gratefully, died.
Three years later, at the age of sixteen, Henry Stormbright became a duke. He'd come out of the cave with enough treasure to buy his own land, complete with a mansion and servants, and a title with them. He married a lord's daughter named Tanya on his seventeenth birthday, and they lived a quiet life together at his estate.
One night, they laid together in bed, their limbs entwined, their eyes staring into one another's. Henry could stare into those eyes forever - blue eyes, not unlike the eyes of a certain dragon he'd once encountered.
"Is it true?" Tanya whispered. Henry knew immediately what she meant, because it was the same question everyone had been asking him since he returned to town with a sack of treasure slung over his shoulder.
"Yes," he said softly. "It's true."
Tanya smiled, a little half-grin in the shape of a crescent moon. He loved when she did that. "How did you do it?"
He smiled back at her with that toothy grin that never seemed to leave his face. Like any good magician, he never revealed his secrets - not even to his darling wife.
“That story has a sweet taste, my love," said Henry Stormbright, "but I will not tell it. All I will say is this: I've found that some men are thirsty, no matter what's in their cup. And all dragons are hungry, no matter what's in their meal."