The Dragon Released
Over the centuries, The Dragon had only a handful of visitors. Most were pilgrims of a sort, motivated by some desperate need to see for themselves that the monster was indeed bound; making the life-threatening journey on the compulsion to spit at him. Others were misguided admirers, drawn by his infamy, hoping for some boon in return for their meaningless sympathy.
As The Dragon’s guard, Abaddon was the silent, invisible witness of each encounter but there was never any real need for him to intervene, either on the behalf of the visitors or his charge. A thin golden chain anchored in the rock and wrapped about the beast’s wrists kept him from moving more than a few feet in any direction, a heavy leather hood kept him from seeing his guests, and most importantly, an iron muzzle kept his poisonous tongue locked within his own head. Part jailor, part jail, Abaddon was the strength that kept the chain strong, the darkness that kept the hood opaque and the cold that made the dragon’s muzzle so perfectly effective. Treading a line between sentience and function, Abaddon’s was an exceptional existence. Something less than a ‘he’ Abaddon was also far more than an ‘it.’ He had been created before time began with a single purpose, the restraint of this villain so long as the Dragon shared a world with men. Despite the Dragon’s long and complicated tale, the swath of destruction that was his wake, and his former reign upon the Earth, to Abaddon’s eye he was mundane, even vulgar; a pedestrian creature with the simplest of motivations, and therefore boring. While The Dragon was driven by the singular impulse to consume, the pilgrims who sought his presence came with fascinatingly complex sets of emotions and ideals. Invariably, the guests were far more interesting than the creature they were drawn to.
At dawn, 8,651,640 hours since his arrival, Abaddon noted the arrival of a new pilgrim at the periphery of his awareness. More than a thousand years ago, an icy stone fell from heaven, adorned in blue-green flame and Abaddon came with it. On impact, the hypersonic meteor boiled an ancient sea in an instant, sending a tower of steam and sand twelve thousand feet into the sky that rained down like so much poison for months to come. Sown with three hundred twenty-nine tons of vaporized copper and iron the crater remained a lifeless pan of corroding stones, obsidian gravel and rusting sand. While the molten rock was still falling from the sky, cinders swirling in the firestorm like obscene locusts, Abaddon took his position, awaiting the prisoner, and watching for whosoever might enter his sphere.
Abaddon’s preternatural eyes watched a pilgrim’s approach from exactly 214.09 miles away, where a pair of stunted, suffering Gopherwoods marked the entrance to the abyss known alternately as The Footprint, The Eustabea Sea, or The Last Resort. Once a man’s foot came to rest on the raised rock highway, Abaddon began to observe and measure – listening first to the pilgrim’s heartbeat, analyzing their sweat, numbering their breath. The initial descent into the crater was exceptionally steep, 802.29 feet of pitted basalt at a roughly 78.4 degree incline. A pilgrim attempting to climb down without the aid of rope had a 52.3% chance of a fatal fall, a 69.1% of a debilitating injury. If a pilgrim managed to reach the floor of the crater, they would have come beneath the persistent fog of carbon monoxide and catch their first sight of the Millstone. The hulking remains of the meteor, the Millstone was a jet-black mesa nearly a mile wide and half that across. It rose 319 yards from the ancient seafloor like a gigantic altar and even from so great a distance, to a pilgrim at the edge of the hole it stood out as the only visible feature in a massive, bleak expanse and the terminus of the wide, stone highway.
As a visitor approached, Abaddon would calculate an integrated chance of survival built largely upon the amount of water they carried. The crater’s razor-like rim made the use of pack animals logistically impossible. Regardless, animals refused to approach the wasteland, rearing, bucking or simply laying down according to their nature; and so a pilgrim had already hiked a day before they ever reached the rim, looked out across the immense hole or pondered its boiling sea of fog. With the pilgrims that overcame, and lived to see the crater’s floor, Abaddon would count the beads of sweat that fell from their faces, determine a droplet’s average volume, multiply by the rate of production, and divide by the pilgrim’s average speed. 81.2% were sufficiently prepared to walk in but not to walk out. He would adjust his calculations favorably for those who chose to travel at night, adjust down for those unable to maintain a minimum pace of 22.8 miles per day and he had been correct 92.77% of the time. But the pilgrim he glimpsed today was different.
The man’s heartbeat was exceedingly regular; in fact Abaddon was unable to recall any heartbeat in any creature that was so modulated. His breathing too was perfectly calm and measured. Abaddon listened intently for half a day, waiting for some variation in either, but heard none. While the man walked briskly toward the Millstone at an unflagging pace of 2.97 miles per hour Abaddon found himself looking for alternative methods to calculate this man’s chance of survival. The usual gauge, based largely on hydration, was seemingly insufficient in this instance. The man was carrying no water at all; a death-knell in all other cases, however the man was not sweating.
As the sun began to set, Abaddon calculated that the man had covered just over thirty-five miles – an exceptionally good pace that nudged Abaddon’s survival estimate upward to eleven percent, but he wasn’t sure if should adjust that rate up or down when he determined that pilgrim showed no intention of stopping. The man continued walking through the night – never stopping to eat or drink, never pausing to catch his scentless, sterile breath, and never lifting his bowed and hooded head from the location of his next perfectly timed footfall.
By morning of the second day Abaddon was intrigued as well as wary. He had come to an 82.69% certainty that the pilgrim was not human after all and that made his presence suspicious. His plain black robe, drawn tight across broad shoulders revealed nothing about the man’s identity, his purpose, or his loyalties, and that was enough to shift Abaddon’s thinking from intellectual curiosity to conservative risk assessment. Still, with so little available information, Abaddon found himself able to do little more than wait. For another two days, and without pause, the enigmatic pilgrim strode the bone littered highway, and arrived at Abaddon’s feet as the dawn broke.
For a moment, the traveler stood facing the Dragon as if evaluating his condition. Despite his namesake, the Dragon appeared as a normal man. In other circumstances one might regard him as tall, athletic, even handsome. But in this place, bound and gagged, stripped naked and beset by the horrid environment, he was simply pathetic. His shoulders sagged under a millennium of defeat and humiliation to a point where his former glory was almost unimaginable. The traveler walked around him slowly, inspecting his chain, his hood and particularly his muzzle. When he appeared satisfied, he cleared his throat.
“Watchman, I come on The King’s errand.”
Abaddon had been here for over a thousand years and never once been spoken to. At the sound of the pilgrim’s voice, the Dragon’s interest was also piqued, raising his head and sniffing at the air. Abaddon paused a long moment, calculating the likely effect of possible responses. After the most tactically effective silence, his voice, coming from nowhere rang out across the valley like crystalline thunder, “I am a servant of Aral Mark pilgrim. Ere my making, nothing but eternal things were forged and I endure for eternity. Already ancient, I witnessed The Dragon’s birth, His mutiny, and His imprisonment. I have counted the hairs upon the heads of every man who believed his lie and to this day I keep his cord taught, his jaw muzzled. All this I’ve seen and yet I know you not.” As he spoke, the air seemed to thin, to darken, and to smell of ozone. There was a faint crackling across the traveler’s cloak as static electricity rose with the guardian’s voice.
“This disguise confounds even you?” The slightest hint of a grin crossed the traveler’s lips, “You know me Tin Man,” he spoke teasingly, “but not this shape.” The traveler casually drew back his hood revealing a man in his late forties with closely cut black hair and a deeply weathered face. The man took a long look at his own hands as if they were as alien to himself as they were to Abaddon. Drawing his robe aside he reached for an ornate hilt at his waist and drew a long, mirror-edged sword. “I’ve also known The Dragon, his treachery, his hubris and his weakness. And I drug his wretched hide from Moriah to the Millstone just so you could keep him silent. Shapes aside brother, you’ll recognize the seal of my office.” The traveler grabbed the sword by the blade and lifted the hilt high as if to provide Abaddon with a better view. The bright blade was engraved with the names of mighty men, a log of exceptional warriors throughout human history. Where the blade met the hilt was the bronze image of an owl, placing wisdom between death and its wielder. Set in the hilt were three onyx stones arranged and sized to suggest the belt of Orion, and twisted about the handle were ten gold ribbons, etched with the law of the King.
“Dreamsinger.” spoke the air.
“Aye friend. Dreamsinger.”
Abaddon was calmed and the air about the Millstone returned to its normal, fetid condition. “He is to be released,” spoke the air, as if the idea held no more weight than an observation of the weather. “I am to be unmade.”
“Yes,” spoke the traveler, “the King sends his discharge. Well done.”
From behind the traveler came a quiet snuffling sound. At first, it could be mistaken for whimpering or even sobbing, but as the sound grew in strength the Dragon stood and threw back his head, he was laughing.
Surveying the Dragon coldly, the traveler drew the hood away and looked into the jovial eyes of his enemy. The Dragon glared back in a kind of gleeful contempt and patronizingly raised his bound hands to the traveler. With a quick stroke of his blade, the Dragon’s chain was cut and he slowly rolled his battered wrists as if to reacquaint himself with their proper function. For several long minuets he languidly stretched his arms and legs, arching his back and rolling his head back and forth. Finally, he reached behind his head and unhooked the iron muzzle that for a thousand years had kept his venom from the world.
“So my brother, you are to be destroyed. Countless years of loyal service and your just reward is to be cast upon the pyre and forgotten.”
“Not upon the pyre sir. That place belongs to another.”
The Dragon spat at the ground and squared his shoulders. “Humph. Still, typical don’t you think?”
The traveler broke in before Abaddon could be baited. “Your first words in an age and yet an insult. This mercy is wasted on you.”
“It is no mercy to be manipulated like a puppet!” snapped the Dragon.
“Silence!” shouted the traveler and the Dragon ground his teeth. “This is the shape you shall keep. This is the tongue you shall speak; this is the ground you shall walk. Deviate once and be certain that this blade will strike but once.” The traveler pressed in toward the dragon, Dreamsinger held above his head and the Dragon stepped backward, coiled like a snake. “You’ve only a short time wretch. And even you can choose to make the most of it.” The traveler lowed Dreamsinger slowly while keeping his body taught for whatever the villain might attempt.
With a sudden and somehow casual toss of his head the Dragon stood up full and smiled warmly at the traveler. “Perhaps you’re right,” he said. “Abaddon, I owe you an apology.” He turned his hands palms up, as if in surrender to the invisible watchman. The traveler slowly placed Dreamsinger back in it sheath and drew his robe close about his body.
“An apology?” came the somehow tentative voice from the air.
“Yes.” said the Dragon as he turned around and faced the traveler. “I was in error a few moments ago. Destruction is too good for you.” With a sudden leap he threw himself past the traveler and across the Millstone toward the descending staircase. As he swept past his clawed hand swiped at the travelers face and drew a long thin cut across his cheek and neck.
Immediately the air again darkened, charged with electricity.
“Let him be.” spoke the traveler. “His path is his own.”