“I’m so very tired,” Skip proclaimed in a loud voice. He was quite proud of his acting, not that any group of players would have hired him. It wasn’t good for business to have your theater periodically swarmed by hungry dragons.
“Also,” Skip said. “I hate sunlight. So I’m not going to look upward. I’m just going to stroll along across this . . . er . . . rocky place of rocks and find a place to lie down and take a nap.”
There was a beating of enormous wings above as the dragon circled. The trick was to get it to land. Dragons were not particularly agile creatures, though Skip didn’t really blame them for that. Try weighing approximately as much as a small house and see how easy it is for you to fly. They needed a good running start to get off the ground, and preferably a cliff to launch themselves off.
Dragons were dangerous in the sky. Of course, they were dangerous on the ground too. Just less dangerous. In the same way that a sword is less dangerous so long as it’s pointed at someone else. Anyway, if Skip could coax the dragon into landing, the hunters could strike. They’d never be able to take it out of the air, however, so they’d remain in hiding until it came down.
Normally, the dragons would try snatching him off the ground while in flight. He was ready for this. As a large rush of air came at him from behind, something unnaturally large and reptilian reaching for him with clawed fingers, Skip tripped. It was an expert trip—something else he was getting quite good at doing—and ended with him hitting the ground in a small hollow in the rock.
The dragon passed on just overhead, unable to get low enough to snatch him while remaining airborne. It would have to land. Midnight wings as wide as billboards thumped up and down, bearing the dragon back upward to wing around again.
“Gosh,” Skip said loudly—dragons had excellent ears, but you still needed to project. “I’m sad that I tripped and got dust in my eyes, so I couldn’t see anything for a few moments when that breeze passed me by. Perhaps I will take my nap in this little dip in the ground. I hope no wild beasts are around to savage me.”
Master Johnston stuck a bemustachioed head out from behind a rock. “Bite. The script saysbite me.”
“What’s the dragon’s skin have to do with this?”
“That’s exfoliate. Look, he’s coming back. Hush. Ahem. Yes, I’ll just be nodding off to sleep now!”
Skip actually had to close his eyes here; it was the most dangerous part. He remained tense, ready to leap up and scramble away while the hunters flooded in to attack. There was a whoosh of wind, though it wasn’t nearly close enough.
Hesitantly, Skip cracked an eye. The large dragon had landed, but not on the ground. It clung to the top of one of the spikelike rock formations, perched like a bird in a tree. If that bird were as agile as a bathtub.
“You’re a terrible actor.” The dragon said in a low, rumbling voice.
“Er. Really? I actually thought I was getting better. I’ve been practicing in front of the mirror, you see.”
“Terrible. I’ve seen pieces of soap that were better actors than you. You have an entire fleet of dragon hunters waiting, I assume.”
“No, you don’t have them? Or no I don’t assume it? Because I really don’t think you’re capable of judging what I do and don’t assume. By the way, who wrote that script for you?”
“He needs an editor.”
“I’ve tried to explain that! Do you know how difficult it is to work with such awful lines?”
“That doesn’t excuse your bad acting.”
“It at least gives some context, though, doesn’t it?”
“So, um, if you saw through the ploy . . . why are you still here? Shouldn’t you have fled?”
The dragon narrowed red, reptilian eyes at Skip while hanging from its perch. From up there, it could probably launch off and stay in the air—or, at the very least, hit the ground in the kind of skipping run while beating its wings that would let it take off quickly.
The hunters could have attacked anyway. The creature wasn’t in the air, and they might be able to pull it down. They remained in hiding, however. They probably found it too dangerous.
The dragon seemed . . . eager. He leaned forward on his perch, watching Skip intently. The monster wanted him, wanted to devour him and rip at his flesh. The scent was intoxicating. That was why it hadn’t flown away, despite recognizing the trap. The lure of Skip Dragon-nip was too great to turn down.
“Why don’t you climb up here to me,” the dragon said in its rumbling voice.
“Climb on up here.”
“You’ll eat me.”
“That’s the idea.”
“Then I think I’ll decline.”
“Oh, come now. It won’t be so bad as you think. They’re will he hardly any pain at all.”
“I don’t care if there’s pain or not. I’ll still be dead. And you used the wrong version of ‘they’re.’ You wanted there instead.”
“I did? How can you tell? They’res no difference in the sounds they make.”
“Actually, I can hear apostrophes.”
“Yes. I can hear spelling too, actually. It’s my other knack.”
“That’s . . . interesting, child. Very interesting. Well, time to get this over with. No use in delaying. Come on up and be eaten.”
“You don’t make a very compelling argument.”
“I’m a very busy dragon.”
“Funny. I have lots of time. I could sit here all day, so long as it involves not being eaten.”
“Oh, come now. Don’t be difficult. This is what you were created to do.”
“What gives you that terrible idea?”
“It’s the circle of life, young human! The beauty of nature! Each creature in turn is consumed by a larger creature, round and around, until we reach the apex predators. Um . . . I’m one of those, by the way.”
“Well, the cows eat the grass, the wolves eat the cows, the men eat the wolves, the dragons eat the men. All very majestic in its simplicity.”
“We don’t eat wolves, actually.”
“No. Not unless we’re very hungry. Even then, they don’t taste very good, so I’m told. Too stringy.”
“Yes, well, you’re supposed to. Men never do as they’re told. Case in point, this moment, where you have the startling rudeness to refuse being consumed. How can I persuade you?”
“Actually, you are persuading me.”
“Really? This is working? Er, I mean . . . of course I am. I’m known as being very compelling conversationalist, among my peers.”
“You didn’t need that comma,” Skip said, “but you should probably have put ‘among my peers’ after ‘I’m known.’ That’s beside the point. You see, I said you were persuading me because the definition of the word implies the act of trying to get someone to do something, whether or not you are successful. You persuade someone, then you either fail or succeed. Most people use it incorrectly. The word you wanted was convince. You need to convince me, not persuade me.”
“You’re not very much fun at parties, are you, small human.”
“I . . . uh . . . don’t get invited to parties very often.”
“I can’t imagine why. So, are you going to stop whining and come get eaten like a man?”
“You’re making mother nature cry.”
“Good. We could use more rain. Why don’t you just go eat a cow?”
“Why don’t you go eat some grass?”
“Um . . . humans can’t digest grass.”
“And dragons can’t digest cows.”
“Really. Humans were designed and built to be eaten by dragons. It’s the nature of things.”
“I find that rather unfair. Who eats you?”
“The worms, once we’re dead. It’s all very metaphysical.”
“But you have to eat humans?”
“If we don’t, we die.”
“How are there any humans left?”
“We don’t need to eat very often, little human. Once every few months. There’s more than large enough a population of you to sustain us. You don’t run out of . . . what is it you eat, again?”
“Cows. Pigs. Carrots. Very few wolves.”
“Yes, well, this is much like you eating those things.”
“Except for the part about me dying.”
“Think of the good you’ll be doing.”
“Good? By keeping a dragon alive to continue terrorizing?”
“No, by sacrificing yourself for someone else. If I don’t eat you, I’ll just end up going off and finding someone else. Probably a fair young virgin. Poor child. If you think about it, getting eaten right now would be a very brave thing of you. Noble, heroic.”
“Well, when you put it that way . . .”
Skip carefully pulled himself up off the ground and pretended to consider. Then, trying to look resigned, he shuffled over to the dragon’s rocky perch.
The dragon leaned forward, red eyes widening in anticipation. The creature drew in a long breath that seemed to enchant him further, and his dry lips parted, revealing razorlike teeth.
Skip got close. Closer than he’d have liked. He could smell the dragon’s putrid breath, see his reflection moving on the creature’s steely claws. He stepped into its shadow.
“Wait,” Skip said, as if coming to a realization. “What am I doing?” He stopped.
That was enough to taunt the dragon, who thought it was missing the chance for a meal. The creature’s eyes went wide, and even a little bit mad, intoxicated by Skip’s scent. It knew that there were hunters waiting. It knew it was in danger, that if it landed on the rocks, it would have a tough time getting back into the air with any sort of speed.
It seemed to forget all of that, for the moment. Skip’s scent could have that effect. The dragon sprang, wings spreading as it dove into a half glide, half leap to attack him. Skip threw himself backward, hitting the rocks and rolling away.
“Have at ’im, boys!” Master Johnston yelled, ducking out and launching his crossbow.
There were two dozen hunters. Crossbows went first, firing thick bolts with wicked heads on them that were designed to puncture dragon scales. They only had enough force if fired close up, but they worked beautifully. A few other men ran out with blunderbusses—black powder weapons with wide barrels, packed with birdshot.
As the dragon roared, rearing up in front of Skip, Puke and Took—the blunderbussmen—fired sprays of birdshot through its unfurled wings. That left a spray of punctures in the taut skin there, further decreasing the dragon’s chances of being able to fly away.
The creature screeched in pain, and Skip took the chance to scramble away. Maddened, the dragon jumped forward to follow, brushing aside the blunderbussmen.
Skip’s heart thundered inside of him as he ran. He wasn’t as fast as a dragon, but he had a little bit of a lead. If he could reach the rock walls. Just a few feet—
He felt the dragon’s shadow fall on him.
A line of hunters leaped out of the rocks nearby and hopped over him, setting spears with the butts against the rock. The Dragon—now driven completely mad by pain and the scent of Skip—lunged downward, red eyes wide and almost sightless. Its momentum impaled it on the spears, snapping three of them free.
Its head got only inches from Skip, lips parting, drool dripping down from the bottom lip. Then it fell to the side, legs jerking.
The spearmen moved in to finish the butchery. Skip lay on the ground, breathing in and out, trembling.
I really need to find a new line of work, he thought.