Maybe Next Time

By J. Brian Jones

Two powerful wings were folded comfortably against its sides, while all four of the gigantic beast’s legs were tucked beneath its lizard-like torso. A row of pointed tines ran down the center of its back, all the way to the end of a lengthy tail that was curled against one wall. Coins from long forgotten kingdoms covered the floor in heaps around and underneath the slumbering dragon, forming a makeshift bed. Gems of all sizes and colors peeked out here and there, making their presence known. A faint glow emanated from the weapons and armor of various cultures and races and eras that dotted the miniature landscape of coin-mountains. A plethora of wands, liquid-filled bottles, jewelry, chests, and various other "treasures" were also scattered throughout the enormous oblong cavern.

Arzechytium slowly raised a scaled eyelid until it was barely a quarter of the way open. A piercing yellow eye stared casually at one smallish entrance to the domelike chamber that housed him during his peaceful rest.

"How long had it been? A few days? Weeks? Months, perhaps?" he thought indifferently.

It was always difficult to tell how long he had been sleeping. After all, one as wise and regal as Arzechytium rarely ventured forth into the world. And time didn’t really matter to him any more. He was content to remain here in his home, enjoying his well-deserved peace, rest, solitude, and treasure.

"Let the young ones worry about the outside world and all of its goings on! And good luck to them! Especially if they plan on aligning themselves with pathetic humans! Or trolls or giants or any of those other lesser creatures, for that matter!" the dragon mused.

All Arzechytium needed now was peace and quiet. Yet something had awakened him. A vague noise in the distance that came from the tiny opening on the far end of his sleeping chamber. It didn’t sound like the shifting rocks and rumblings of the mountain with which he had become so familiar over the years.

"Years? Decades? Surely I haven’t been here for more than a century," Arzechytium pondered.

Another strange sound echoed from the narrow corridor, interrupting his internal debate. The ancient wyrm knew that it wasn’t caused by something natural such as a cave-in, small earthquake, volcanic activity, or the like. There were no vibrations of the floor, ceiling, or walls to indicate anything of the sort. And the sound didn’t come from the stone itself, but through the small opening across the way.

"What, then, might it be?" the dragon contemplated curiously.

Surely it wasn’t another band of those ignorant goblins, wanting to expand their complex of tunnels again. It was bad enough they moved into the natural caves and passages far above his resting place. But at least they served as somewhat of a deterrent to anyone or anything else that might venture into his home. And it was only a minor inconvenience when the stupid creatures occasionally sent small parties to explore the deepest recesses of the mountain. Of course, none of them ever returned to their comrades or homes or families or whatever it was that the smelly little things had up there. Come to think of it, Arzechytium realized that he hadn’t had a snack in a long time.

"Maybe they finally ran out of brave volunteers," he reasoned, chuckling to himself.

Brave! The old dragon might have laughed to himself at that notion on a different day. The goblins that actually did make it to his chamber were hardly brave. Most of them panicked and froze with fear the instant they caught a glimpse of his magnificent form. He would usually eat one or two of the creatures, even though they didn’t particularly taste very good. Of course a few would turn and flee, not that it really mattered. As soon as he raised his serpentine neck and bellowed forth a stream of fire, those paralyzed by his splendor were immediately turned to ashes and blown away. The ones who retreated back into the corridor had likely suffered worse than the goblins that stayed to admire him. After all, they probably writhed in agony as their flesh and bones burned away at a much slower rate, since they weren’t directly in the path of the raging inferno.

"Cowards always get what they deserve in the end," Arzechytium said smiling.

The ancient wyrm allowed his yellow eye to scan the cavern again. It settled on another wide crack in the towering gray walls. Misshapen mounds of gold, silver, gemstones, and other precious metals were fused together, resembling rolling dunes of sand or waves on the sea. The stone surrounding the opening was blackened, as well. Small splotches of various colors speckled the walls in the area, a result of the sudden melting and splashing of assorted coins, items, and other prized possessions that he had liquefied with his fiery breath. Arzechytium stared angrily at the twisted heaps for a long moment.

"The goblin raiders came through that hole," he reminded himself.

The great red dragon returned his unconcerned gaze to the opening from which he had heard the noises that had roused him. A faint repetitive pitter-patter wafted through the crevice.

"Footsteps… And it smells like one of those perpetually singing, pointy-eared, woodland creatures," Arzechytium noted derisively.

The wyrm heard one distinct set of footfalls coming from far down the corridor. He knew better than to think that someone dared venture this deep into the underworld all alone. More would be following this advanced scout, but only after he deemed the passage was safe. The pitter-patter stopped for several seconds then receded, growing softer and softer. Getting farther and farther away.

"Going back for his companions since the way is ‘safe’," the dragon decided.

Sure enough, a faint whisper drifted out of the opening.

"All clear," the melodic voice beckoned quietly, speaking in the unrefined common tongue.

"Poor elf has to lower himself to that level just to make acquaintances," Arzechytium concluded sarcastically.

A murmur of three—no, four—other voices answered in less than subdued tones. Two were obviously male and likely human. The third was high pitched, but not sonorous enough to be elven. A human female, the ancient wyrm guessed. The fourth voice was deep-pitched and gruff. Couldn’t be a dwarf. They don’t get along well with the elves. At least they didn’t the last time Arzechytium had been in contact with the outside world. And that had been… He didn’t want to rehash that debate again. Instead, he listened for more clues about the individual with the rough voice.

"Let’s go," one of the human males directed. "Don’t want to keep Aylwin waiting."

"I don’t like the idea o’ him bein’ up there by hisself anyway," the gruff-voiced man grumbled.

"Rudiger, we all know that you’d rather be near the front since the goblins killed your brother," the woman remarked. She sounded rather sympathetic. "But you would need a torch and Aylwin does not," she explained.

"Yeah, ‘n don’t worry, you’ll get your chance at revenge," the second man agreed. "We know they hafta be down ‘ere somewhere. ’Sides, Aylwin promised he’d come n’ get ya ‘fore fightin’ any of ‘em," he added. It also sounded like he slapped the disgruntled man heartily on the back.

The deep-voiced man muttered something unintelligible in response.

"A human from the savage lands. It has to be," the dragon decided firmly.

The scuffle of many feet reverberated off the walls, making Arzechytium wonder how any of these pathetic humanoids had survived so long. They certainly weren’t going to sneak up on anyone or anything with tactics like this. Eventually, the corridor became silent again. The whole filthy bunch must have finally met up. The wyrm assumed that they were coordinating their next move through hand signals or something of the sort, since he didn’t even hear the telltale sign of someone scratching a drawing on the floor. After the brief pause, the solitary shuffle of the light-footed elf began anew. Louder and louder. Closer and closer. In fact, Arzechytium figured that the elf was not much farther up the corridor now.

"Would he keep advancing if he knew that I was only a few hundred feet away?" he wondered.

The dragon heard the footfalls come to an abrupt halt. A gasp followed almost immediately. He knew that the elf had gotten his first glimpse of the treasure from somewhere down the passage. The unmistakable sound of a deliberate gulp occurred moments later. Then the expected footsteps again, though now they were much more tentative.

Arzechytium gradually closed his eyelid. He left a sliver of space open so that he could watch, although to anyone else it would appear that his eye was completely shut.

"Surely the elf doesn’t think all of this is unguarded," he reasoned, opening his other eye—the one that the approaching invader wouldn’t be able to see from the hole.

Nervous, almost labored breaths preceded the elf long before he ever neared the end of the tunnel. Soon enough, though, the dragon saw the shape of his expected visitor turn the final bend in the passage. The elf stopped suddenly.

"His first look at true majesty," Arzechytium suspected.

Of course the intruder could see him, even though the cavern and passages were pitch black. The elf’s infravision, although much more limited than that of the great wyrm, would enable him to see as if the place were bathed in the noontime sun. After several seconds, the figure in the corridor deliberately backed away. The shuffle of hurried footsteps followed moments later, well after the elf had disappeared around the bend.

"What’d ya find?" one of the men whispered.

"D… d… dr… dragon…" Aylwin stuttered shakily.

"Not very eloquent for an elf," the red wyrm noted snidely.

The elf’s words were met with a cacophony of hushed murmurs. One voice finally talked over the others, earning the full attention of the speaker’s companions.

"Did it see you?" one of the men asked.

"I… I don’t think so," the elf replied. "It appeared to be sleeping."

"Then let’s get it ‘fore it knows what hit it!" the barbarian growled, his heavy steps echoing through the passage.

"No! Rudiger!" the woman squeaked.

"Yeah, wait ‘til Aylwin catches ‘is breath at least," the other man suggested. The footsteps halted.

"We can not just march right in there, anyway," Aylwin panted.

"Why?" the barbarian grunted.

"He’d hear us first," the elf stated matter-of-factly.

"I have already heard you," Arzechytium thought, amused by the irony.

"We can sneak up on ‘im!" Rudiger argued.

"The entire floor of the chamber is littered with coins, weapons, and many other things that would surely rattle," the elf explained.

"Hey, how ‘bout another idea?" one of the men proposed. No one answered, so he continued. "Why don’t we jus’ creep up t’ the edge ‘n pick a few o’ the loose coins ‘n what-not off the top? Then we jus’ slip away wit’ the loot. We’re safe ‘n sound, while the sleepin’ dragon’s none the wiser."

"We shall see who is lacking wisdom, foolish human," the ancient wyrm thought contemptuously.

The man’s idea was greeted with enthusiasm from everyone, even the battle-hungry barbarian. They spent the next several minutes working out the details for their grand scheme.

Arzechytium listened for a few moments, but soon became bored. This ragtag group of visitors may be even less intelligent than the dimwitted goblins that lived in his mountain. This band of thieving intruders didn’t deserve one copper of his magnificent treasure. He should simply incinerate them as soon as they neared the edge of his sleeping chamber.

"Or maybe…" the dragon pondered. "Maybe I should let them think their plan is working… Lure them in by pretending to sleep right through their pilfering… Even let them pick up a few precious treasures to give them a false sense of security. Yes, then I shall ‘wake up’ and act lethargic, as if I can barely move after sleeping for so long. I’ll feign surprise and allow them to attack first. I’ll pretend that I am wounded, hurt, and unable to fight back… Hobble around the cavern for a bit to stretch my legs… all the while inducing my new playthings into a game of cat and mouse as if they are the aggressors and I am the helpless victim. I should fight back a little, though certainly not with all of my might. Too quick. Too easy. Yes, I’ll injure a couple of them first, still letting them think that they have a fighting chance. Only then will I reveal my full power and majesty! I shall rise up and…"

A hint of movement attracted his attention and interrupted his contemplation. The band of adventurers had arrived at the opening. The one in front bent down and carefully reached for a gold coin.

Arzechytium snapped open his eyelid and glared at the thieves. All in one motion he turned his head, opened his mouth, and exhaled at the invaders. A stream of searing fire billowed from his throat. It danced across the treasure-strewn floor, brightly illuminating the entire cavern for a few rare moments. Coins, weapons, and other items in the path of the blaze immediately turned into a pool of seething molten fluid. The stone walls on the receiving end of the blast turned black, forever charred by the violent heat. And the intruders were nowhere to be seen, though some of their ashes still floated gently down into the boiling pond of liquid metal.

"Maybe next time," the ancient red dragon sighed, laying his head down and returning to his slumber.

The End

Copyright © 2003 by J. Brian Jones

Bio: J. Brian Jones is working on a series of novels, none of which have yet been published. He is 27 and lives in Carmichaels, Pennsylvania.



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