Aphelion Issue 293, Volume 28
September 2023
 
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The Better Tooth

by Paul Cesarini & Andy Schocket




Huffing, puffing, and trying his very best to hover just outside of the cell window as quietly as possible, the dragon was pretty much done. This was the farthest he had flown in decades. He had gone through pounding rain and ferocious wind the night before. The weather finally cleared, then the dragon got lost. Twice. Each time he stopped to ask villagers for directions, they would either faint or run screaming. Then it rained again. He hated rain.

He wasn’t even sure why he had come, to be honest. He wasn’t technically friends with the man in any real sense. If anything, he should be glad the man had been locked up. After all, he did try to kill the dragon repeatedly.

Yet, the man was the sole contact the dragon had with the outside world. Screaming villagers don’t count, he thought. For the past three years, he had an understanding with the man: in exchange for keeping his distance from the village, not setting fire to things, not devouring livestock, and generally not subjecting humanity to his rather off-putting appearance and habits, the man would bring him three sheep per month (sometimes four!) and periodically stop by to visit. The dragon used to give the man some gold with each visit, but he began politely refusing after a year or so. Apparently, since he took over / usurped duties from the local magistrate, the man was doing ok for gold. He was seemingly even a decent administrator. The village appeared a bit more organized, a bit tidier. The children, a bit less grimy. The stream that represented the sole water supply for this and three other villages had slightly less urine.

“I say!” shouted the dragon, out of breath, barely hovering outside the window.

“I say!” he shouted again, wiping his sweaty forehead with his clawed hand.

“Friend? Anyone in there? I can hover out here for maybe 5 more minutes before I drop or vomit, possibly both.” The dragon cast a huge shadow over that side of the fortress, kicking up twigs, dust, and debris each time he flapped his gray, leathery wings. All the dust made him sneeze small puffs of turquoise smoke from his nostrils. Damn allergies.

“Alright. That’s it. I’m done...” he said, gently floating down to the ground. “I don’t even know why I bother. I’ve got better things to do, you know.” he said, lying. The dragon stared up at the cell window. No response.

“Friend?” he shouted up to the window again.

“You know...” he said, pausing to scratch his chin, “I don’t even know your name. How sad is that? I mean, we’ve known each other for a few years now. We’re partners in this – this thing,” he said, waving around his hands. “Yet, I’ve been calling you ‘human’ the whole time and you’ve been calling me ‘creature’ -- and that’s if it’s been a good day! Half the time it’s ‘monster’ this or ‘vileness’ that. Shouldn’t we at least be on a first name basis by now?” he asked, up to the cell window. Still no response.

The dragon looked around at the other windows of the fortress, turning his head almost completely around when he thought he heard something coming up behind him. Just a bird, he thought. “Is this even the right window?” he asked. “If you’re here, give me a sign! Call me demonic or blasphemous or something!”

“You’re blasphemous...” said a weary voice, coming from deep inside the cell. “Get me out, monster.”

The dragon’s ears perked up and his tail twitched excitedly. “Ah! You’re here – excellent!” he said, flapping his wings and rising up higher. A cloud of dust flew up again, causing him to sneeze bright, blue flames. “Hold on! I’ve got this! Stand back!”

The dragon flew backwards slightly, angling his body squarely in front of the fortress. He hoped the man was capable of standing back and wasn’t, say, chained to the wall adjacent the cell window. At that, he let loose with a huge, thundering blast of flame against the wall. Chunks of masonry flew off at different angles, with smaller pieces melting instantly, leaving a scorched, gaping hole where the window had been. Soot and putrid smoke rained everywhere. The dragon beat his wings again quickly to clear the fumes. A frail, manacled hand slowly stuck out through the hole in the wall. The dragon pivoted around in mid-air, motioning toward his back. “Get on, quickly, before the guards arrive!” he said, as the smoke cleared. He could feel the man’s frail weight as he carefully climbed on.

“Right! Off to my lair now – we can figure out next steps later.” it said, looking out toward the horizon.

“A lair?” said the man on his back. “No lairs. I need to get to my meadow.” The man was very old, malnourished, and sported a long, dirty beard. He was dressed in rags.

“What -- hold on?!” said the dragon, surprised, realizing the man on his back was not, in fact, the man he had hoped to rescue. He narrowly avoided flying into one tree but was not so fortunate with a second one nearby. Both the dragon and the man bounced off it with a dull thud, causing leaves and twigs to fly up into the air. They landed in a meadow with an even louder thud, with the man falling squarely on the dragon’s head. The dragon immediately brushed the frail old man off him and frantically attempted to clean his scales.

“Goddess!” he cried, exasperated, trying in vain to repeatedly clean his tongue. “That was positively the worst thing that’s ever happened to me in over 100 years! Did you really have to sit directly on my nostrils?! You know how bad you smell, don’t you? To a dragon, it’s even worse! By Ishtar, ‘Old Man Bottom’ is about as bad as it gets! That’s even worse than ‘wet dog’...” he said, still trying desperately to wipe his face and neck with his hands.

“Didn’t sit.” said the man, steadying himself next to the tree, trying to pull himself upright.

“What?” said the dragon, not even looking at the man.

“I landed,” said the man. “On your face. That beak of yours is pretty pointy.” The man rubbed his right elbow, then the back of his neck. “Could’ve really hurt myself,” he said, pointing at the dragon. “You should be more careful.”

“More careful? Me?!” said the dragon, now upright and pacing around. “Did I press my derriere up against your face? Did I... wait a minute! Who are you and why did you jump on my back?!” he said, pointing a clawed finger at the pitiful old man.

“I was in that cell,” said the man, stroking his beard. “Months. Maybe more,” he said, pausing to pick a flea out of it. He stared blankly at the dragon, who looked around as if there might be someone standing behind it. There wasn’t.

“That’s it?” asked the dragon, waving his arms. “You trick me into breaking you out of prison, jump on my back like I’m some sort of pack mule (which, admittedly do taste quite good), moon-press me, then just stand there like some sort of... of, human?!”

The man slowly nodded in agreement.

“Why were you in that cell?” asked the dragon, still very much annoyed. “Where is my friend? Did I get the cell number wrong? Was his cell on the opposite tower?” The dragon towered over the man, who seemed not to notice or care. “Tell me, why shouldn’t I just roast and devour you right now?” demanded the dragon, taking two steps closer to him.

“Well,” said the man, scratching his head until he found something apparently interesting in his scalp. He paused to examine it, frowning slightly, still not looking at the dragon. “I’m old. Don’t like people much. Just a shepherd. I live...”

“Hold on!” interrupted the dragon. “A shepherd? With sheep?” The man nodded again, flicking the thing from his scalp in the other direction then trying and failing to wipe the dirt and grime off his shoulders.

“How many sheep, specifically?” asked the dragon, smacking his tongue.

The man looked at the dragon, confused. “Don’t know for certain. Maybe a hundred or so. Better go find ‘em. They get restless if I’m not there. My nephew’s been tending to ‘em, but I don’t know about him sometimes…” he said, turning and walking away from the dragon. He paused again, still not looking back at the dragon. “Appreciate you gettin’ me out of that cell.” He then nodded in the general direction of the dragon and kept walking. He looked like he was about to fall over with each step he took. The slightest breeze would have toppled him.

“Friend!” said the dragon, smiling, reaching forward to the man and putting one of his clawed hands on his shoulder. “I’m so glad I was able to free you from that awful, dank cell! It was dank, wasn’t it? Dank is the worst, really. You feel it in your bones, your joints.” The dragon spun the man around quickly, so they faced each other. “Let me give you a ride back to your herd. Please. You can’t be expected to walk all the way there by yourself, in your… clearly decrepit condition,” he said, motioning dismissively at his physique. The man looked up and down at himself, nodding somewhat in agreement.

“Well...”

“What, may I ask, is your name, good sir?”

The man thought about it, glanced down at his beard, looked quite alarmed, then quickly picked something out of it and flicked it away. “Depends. Which name?”

“Which name? Your given name.”

“Most call me Therm.”

“Therm?” said the dragon, looking around to make sure this wasn’t some sort of elaborate prank. “Is that even a name? Is it short for something? ‘Thermes’? ‘Thermopylae’?”

“‘The hermit,’ I think.”

The dragon stood back, wings folded, claws at his hips. “‘The hermit’? Really? That’s not a name so much as a state of being, isn’t it? Was it initially abbreviated to ‘Thermit,’ then later cut down to just ‘Therm’?”

“Don’t know. T’was my job and that’s what they called me.”

“A job!” said the dragon, unimpressed. “Being a hermit isn’t a profession – it’s the lack of a profession. There’s no training. No career ladder. You don’t work your way up to ‘Lord Hermit’ or anything.”

“There were a few of us. Guess I was in charge for a while. Until I got my sheep.”

“In charge? Of hermits?! Being a hermit is necessarily isolating – it’s literally what the word means. There can’t be some sort of community of hermits or something. If there was, they would instantly all cease to be hermits, wouldn’t they? If a bunch of irritable, smelly humans live near each other, congregate, and trade bits of string and whatnot, at that point they are merely neighbors. Certainly not hermits.”

Therm weighed what the dragon said, raised one of his eyebrows somewhat, then shrugged. “Maybe,” he said, turning. “Well, gotta go.”

The dragon quickly positioned himself in front of the departing man, putting one huge, clawed hand on his shoulder. “Whoa – hold on! My old friend and colleague Therm, wise in your clearly advanced years and resolute in defiance of your prolonged imprisonment (despite your obvious enfeeblement), about those sheep. Let’s go get them together, shall we?”

Therm shifted his gaze a couple of times, first from the dragon’s face to the far left, then closer to the left, and squinted a bit. He looked down at his gnarled feet and his knees, knobby like tree knots, then at the dragon’s wings, before finally back at the dragon’s face.

“It’s a ways from here.”

“I have no doubt, my hermitinous… may I call you friend, partner perhaps? Tell you what. You hop on my back here, easy does it. I’m just a small dragon, not much of a climb.” Which was true, the dragon being of the Monterian lineage, that is, perhaps the physically least imposing variety of dragon.

Once Therm had made painstaking his way from the ground to a hold between the kneeling dragon’s scaly, scabrous shoulder blades, they took to the air. They cruised over fens and forests, pastures and ponds, the man directing the dragon this way and that, sometimes doubling back, with the dragon circling wide to avoid villages lest their residents try to fill them with arrows, raise the alarm to bring in their livestock, or stink half as bad as Therm. Several times, they set down, only with the man to inform the tiring and increasingly annoyed dragon that, the man’s eyes not being what they once were, and now that they were closer, he could see that this was not the correct place, after all. After what seemed like several hours into their “partnership,” the man signaled for the dragon to drop to the ground in a small valley clearing. This, Therm said he was sure, was definitely what he was looking for. By now the dragon would have been happy to land anywhere that wasn’t the business end of some knight’s lance. Even given the dragon’s relatively svelte profile for his kind—and this one was on the lower end of that fearsome species’ spectrum—a goose, built for migration, it was not.

“Here we are, Therm, my most esteemed, if myopic, odiferous, and disturbingly directionally-challenged, keeper of wooly and delectable livestock,” the dragon gasped, somewhere between announcement and accusation, as the man gingerly dismounted. “Which,” the dragon noted, “do not seem to be present. And, judging by the length of the grass, appear not to have been grazing in numbers anytime recently. Are you certain this is the place?”

Therm gazed around the sky.

“Sun’s still higher than I would have expected.”

The dragon was too tired to turn his neck to see. “So?”

“Lost track of time in jail. They could have moved to the summer pasture.”

“And where is that, pray tell?”

“Three weeks’ walk west of here.”

The dragon exhaled a whiff of smoke from his nostrils, barely a candle’s worth of flame coming out. His lungs ached too much to generate more than a campfire if it tried, and his wings felt as if weighed down by a pair of big, petrified balls of a giant Emagolian troll. Each.

“Could wait until tomorrow to go.”

“Tomorrow?!” The dragon face-palmed as best as it was able to, given the length of both his snout and claws. “Ok. Fine. This is fine.” He paced around Therm, his flaccid tail dragging behind him. “Look, human…”

“Therm.”

“Yes, right. Therm. Are you quite positive about this? I mean, your decrepitude and declining years don’t exactly inspire confidence here, do they? I have chandeliers older than you back at my cave but I’m starting to think they know more about sheep than you do.”

“What’d you say your name was again?” said Therm, as the dragon walked behind him, staring into the sky.

“Well, we dragons don’t share our actual names with anyone but ourselves. You wouldn’t even be able to pronounce it. In some rare instances, humans have given us names. They typically do so out of fear or respect. Ok, usually just plain fear. Serious, terror-inducing, ‘Dear-Gods-I-Just-Shat-Myself’ fear.”

“Like what?”

“Their names?” said the dragon, no longer facing Therm. It started counting them off with his claws. “Oh, let’s see, there was Trebuchet the Great and Terrible, Mienmander the Night Fire, Hieronymus Crush, Lavatrocity the Elder, Flayvius the Nipplecutter…”

“Thermocalypse?”

“Yes – yes, Thermocalypse the Defenestrator. Good!” he said, absentmindedly pointing behind himself to Therm. “I forgot about her. She was one of the ancient ones – extremely powerful and a real loathsome, vile git from what I’ve been told. No redeeming qualities at all. Why, I’ve heard stories that she would swoop down on unsuspecting villagers, pick them up from behind by their undergarments, then would fling them down into piles of cow dung – all out of pure boredom. That’s just plain mean, really.”

“Go on…”

“Well, apparently her hygiene was quite poor, too. It’s said that her lair was so foul-smelling that humans never even bothered to try stealing his treasure. I bet she reeked, if her lair was that stinky. That of course assumed her treasure hoard was even real. Some say the stench was deliberate, to keep prying eyes away from whatever meager coinage she had.”

“Do tell.”

“She really gave all us dragons a bad name, honestly. From what I’ve heard, she was just a mean, bitter old fart who took out her frustrations on whatever poor creature crossed her path. Why, what I wouldn’t give to go toe-to-toe with that bloated, senile coward right now.” said the dragon, making increasingly ridiculous boxing motions.

A huge shadow loomed over the dragon from behind. “Say…” he asked, still boxing with his back turned, “how did you hear about Thermocalypse? That wretched beast lived well before I even hatched – over 300 years ago. I mean, you are of course quite old and doddering, but that’s for a human. What are you, maybe 60? 70?”

“I am 738 years old, you hatchling!” The shadow grew over the dragon, a deep, biting cold running through his spine.

“Hatchling?!” he exclaimed, turning. “Just who do you think you’re… Holy Fek!”

“Fek has nothing to do with it, runt!” a voice thundered from above the dragon, followed by a torrent of flame so hot that the dragon involuntarily closed his eyes and hunched closer to the ground. Then, for a moment, silence.

“Look up, hatchling,” the voice said, this time, calmer and quieter, but with a deeper tone of malice. An enormous figure towered over the dragon with the menace of an angry grizzly toward a fox that threatened his cubs. his unfolded wings extended beyond the dragon’s peripheral vision.

“You’re… the smell, the size, you’re…” the dragon whimpered.

“Say it, wretch.”

“Therm.. Therma…”

“You can do it.”

“Thermocalypse.”

“Very good!” The huge dragon now smiled, revealing rows of rotting teeth, though some still sharper and longer than double-handed scimitars. “For… what did you call me, a ‘wretched beast,’ was it? I’m actually in not so bad shape. It’s just as well that, unlike me, you can’t change into human form, because if you did, and you wore pants, I’d say you’d have shat them by now. What else did you call me, let’s see, ‘a mean, bitter old fart’?”

“Just figures of speech, of course! None were meant to be taken literally, your largeness.” said the younger dragon, awkwardly attempting to bow and curtsy at the same time.

“You shouldn’t spread nasty libels about your fellow dragons. Gives all of us a bad name. I’m thinking that you’d be less able to do so if you couldn’t get around quite so fast. Those wings of yours look tired, anyway, little one,” Thermocalypse observed. She reached out an enormous talon and poked the smaller dragon’s trembling left wing. “Maybe losing them would be a good lesson for the insolent likes of you. Or maybe they’d be a nice crunchy appetizer, before the main meal. It’s been nearly a century since I’ve enjoyed a tasty, fresh dragon liver.”

“Or, maybe… um, maybe not!” said the younger dragon. “Maybe… they could be put to good use, oh very beautiful and wise elder?”

“That’s a proper attitude, wretch. I’m glad to see that you’ve suddenly got some energy. But of what use could you, insignificant as you are, be to me?”

“Surely, O great Thermocalypse, being so… impressive in size and stature, and so… distinguished in age, there must be tasks beneath your considerable dignity that I could undertake?”

“Hmmm… so, you would be my errand boy?”

“Right-o, dear lady – your valet de chambre! Your squire! Your scullion! Your hewer of wood, and fetcher of water! Why, name the job and I’m on it like a warthog on a pile of dung. Yes, ma’am.”

Thermocalypse laid the elbow of one of her great wings on the dragon’s back—a light gesture for her, but for the smaller beast pressing down like a set of millstones—and tilted her head slightly. “That’s a more appropriate tone, better suited to addressing, how did you put it so colorfully, ‘a real vicious, loathsome witch’?”

“Actually, I believe it was ‘loathsome, vile git’, your eminence.” Thermocalypse roared and shot out another blast of flame, causing the younger dragon to duck but not before the tip of his left wing ignited. “Youch!” he screamed, hopping around. He then quickly licked his fingers, pinched them to the smoldering part and extinguished it, and forced another smile at the huge dragon. “Right, sorry, dear lady. My fault.”

She drummed her talons a few times along the cowering dragon’s spine. “There might be one way I can think of that even your pitiful hindquarters would be of better use for now, before chewing on them later. I’m not quite hungry yet, having just eaten a pair of delectable griffins last year; raw, they’re so tough, but after a few weeks of slow live-roasting, tender like human babies.” A bucket-sized drop of saliva dripped from her mouth to the ground, where it sizzled and steamed.

“What would that be, great bringer of fiery destruction?”

“Well, it’s almost too trivial, even for your level of incompetence. There’s this badger…”

“A badger?”

“A badger.”

“Right – I’m off to kill it. No need to say another word, my ancient-yet-still-incredibly-fetching empress.”

“The badger stole something from me, something very valuable – very personal. Get it back and we’ll talk about your future.”

“A badger stole something from you?” The younger dragon paused, his clawed hands on his hips. “What in Fek’s name could it have stolen from you?”

“It took,” said Thermocalypse, opening her hideous, enormous jaws widely, and pointing to the lower one, “one of my teeth.” Amidst the putrid trails of smoke that wisped out of her mouth, the younger dragon saw that, indeed, one of her rotten, serrated teeth was missing.

“Oh, yes, I see,” he said, futilely attempting to wave away the stench while still not further offending him. “But how did..?”

“Never mind that! Let’s just say that badger and I have had… issues, for some time now. He has my tooth, probably as a trophy of sorts. I want it back, whelp. I’ll give you three days to retrieve it.”

“Right. Trophy tooth. I’m on it.” he said, turning and flapping his wings. He rose slowly above the ground, above the older dragon, then turned his head and yelled, “Oh, where am I going?”

“Go East, turn right at the second village then straight on ‘til morning, under the Cliffs of Ferrality! Just ask around about the badger. Believe me, someone will know of it! You’ve got three days!”

“Got it!” the younger dragon turned again, gaining altitude and momentum.

“Oh, and hatchling! It’s not always a badger! That’s just the form it takes from time to time! It’s really Homunculus the Humongous – a right villainous bastard!”

“Yes, right at the village! Badger! Got it!” The younger dragon, his earlier exhaustion seemingly forgotten for the moment, sped off into the sky with the urgency of a deer being chased by a famished pack of Daxilenean wolves.

Thermocalypse watched the young dragon grow smaller and smaller. Looking annoyed, she felt something in her mouth, stuck in one of her huge, clawed fingers, fished around, then yanked out a long, rotten fang. She stared at it, shrugged, then flicked it off into the tall grass, not bothering to see where it landed. She looked up one last time at the young dragon, now little more than a dot in the evening sky.

“Rookie…” the old dragon said, shaking her gigantic head. She morphed back into Therm, sighed, then hobbled toward the woods in search of a sturdy branch to use as a cane.


THE END


2024 Andy Schocket & Paul Cesarini

Bio: Paul Cesarini is a Professor & Dean at Loyola University New Orleans. He has been published in numerous venues over the years, most recently including 365 Tomorrows, Antipodean SF, the Creepy Podcast, and Sci-Fi Shorts. In his spare time, he serves as the editor / curator of Mobile Tech Weekly.

E-mail: Paul Cesarini

Bio: Andy Schocket is a Professor at Bowling Green State University. He is a historian, writer, and proud union member. He lives in the banana republic known as “Ohio.”

Website: Andy Schocket's Website

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