Glaring down from the hill, Cecil watched the carnage unfold in the distance. The local militia huddled in the square, mauled and bawling. As Cecil observed the scene, a fragment of lesson rose to mind with haunting clarity:

“Amateurs should not try to be heroes,” his master had said. “For that matter, neither should you. Forget the crib-tales your mothers lulled you with, there’s no glory in heroes. Never think it. Be Hunters instead.”

Cecil could still hear the scorn in the old bastard’s voice. Even more vividly, he recalled the way his master had leveled his contemptuous, snaggletoothed smile at Cecil. As much as he hated to admit it though, the old man had been right. All you needed to prove it was look down at the town square and count the bodies.

The sight began to blur as Cecil spurred his horse down the hill, but his senses captured details with lazy clarity. The locals called the creature Ferox, and it had engaged the militia in the town square. 

‘Engaged.’ That was far too clinical a word for what the monster had wreaked. The beast had butchered the would-be champions like fatted hogs in the autumn harvest. As Cecil approached the village, he let out a small, pained groan. The militia had come to the hunt in what looked like parade-ground uniforms. The men were resplendent in long blue-and-red striped surcoats, their gleaming helmets adorned with faded feathers. All were armed with pike, sword, and shield, well-suited to resist a cavalry charge or for close infantry fighting. A few even had flintlocks, and some of their comrades had gaping wounds that attested to their accuracy.

Cecil could see by the positions of the fallen how it must have played out. The militia had turned out in ranks in the town’s central square, and Ferox had come down like a wolf on the fold.  He had smashed into the side of the column, shredding through them and striking to wound, rather than kill. Once Ferox was among them – once they understood what they faced – the men panicked. 

They weren't even soldiers, much less Hunters. Some had run, some had tried to help their neighbors, and some of them had tried to curl up in a tight defensive formation. All the while, Ferox had been carving chunks off of them. Wherever he saw a gap in the ranks of leveled pikes, wherever he saw weakness or hesitation, that was where he struck. Ferox would dart in, cripple two or three men, and be gone while the mob was still reeling. Then they would shamble after him, like a beast with too many limbs and too little brain. Panting desperately to come to grips with their tormentor, they left the wounded behind, bleeding and half-trampled. The militiamen would realize their mistake, and turn just in time to watch their neighbors scream their last. And Ferox had loved every minute of it. 

Watching now, Cecil could have sworn the thing was grinning as it tore a yard-long snake of glistening guts from the belly of a fallen militiaman. It used the intestines like a leash, dragging the man back into darkness between two smoldering buildings, tormenting the man’s fellows with his cries.

Ferox was more than an animal. Cats couldn't match the cruel streak of one of Ferox's breed. But there was something feline about the way he moved – a slinky, almost sensual motion, like an ambulatory drawl.  The monster had a sleek, aquiline quality, all rounded lines and easy, predatory grace. He had a hide like night in a windowless cellar, the scales of its back and sides so black that the creature showed up as a patch of mobile darkness within the alley-shadows. 

Cecil urged his mount towards the blood-soaked square as Ferox re-emerged. Those hot, balefire eyes swiveled to catch the Hunter, the delicately tapered nostrils flaring. The beast had seen him, and he seemed to know a threat when he saw one. Cecil cursed at his incaution. He’d been too eager to ride to the rescue, too determined to keep those idiots from losing more blood and bodies than they already had. He’d let himself be made. Thus warned, Ferox slipped sideways down an adjacent alley, using the buildings as cover.

Cecil emerged into the square, trying to follow the scrabbling sounds of the creature’s claws. He had little success. The intervening buildings muffled the sounds of Ferox's movement, and there was just too damn much noise. Any noises the monster might have made were lost in the noises of the dying and roar of buildings alight. The heat from those flames was intense, dry, all-consuming. Sweat already soaked the padded jerkin beneath his chain, stung in his eyes, and made his hands slick beneath his leather gloves. But it was fear that dried his mouth and made his heart pound like the drums of doom.

Cecil patrolled around the exterior of the square, his horse clopping along at a quick walk. Something was wrong, a niggling concern in the back of his mind. He was craning his head to check a particularly gloomy alleyway when the answer came. The horse! He should’ve dismounted and let the beast go. He began to move, twisting his foot in the stirrup to dismount, but it was too late.

The only warning Cecil had was a flicker of motion at the edge of his vision. Ferox must have scaled the building next to him from the opposite side, waited until he rode by, and then pounced. Cecil could almost see it happening; even as he tried to free himself from his suddenly bucking steed. The shadow of the creature’s wings fell across his face. Cecil’s mind fixed on a half-remembered fact: The shadow of a dragon’s wing was considered a portent of doom in almost every culture in the world - unusually sensible, for a portent.

Cecil barely managed to fling himself out of the saddle and towards the building Ferox had leapt from, talons missing his head by inches. Cecil landed hard on the cobbles, feeling a sickening crack in his left side. Air hissed between his teeth, and he had to stifle a scream as his ribs creaked with every breath. The horse had panicked; insane with fright at Ferox's scent. That was why Hunters never went into battle mounted, Cecil recalled as he forced himself to his feet. You couldn't train a horse to stand the scent of Ferox and his kind. Horses were too smart for that. It took the superior stupidity of a human to walk knowingly into a monster’s den.

Free from his rider’s control, Cecil’s steed bolted. The horse’s flight left Cecil and his nemesis alone among the dead and dying. Cecil had not marked exactly when the Militia had scurried away,  but he noted it now with a mix of relief and contempt. Ferox stared at him, calmly chewing on the belly of a screaming man. Every few moments, his head would tip, twist, and tear off a chunk of meat with a peculiarly dainty motion. Then Ferox's head would snap back, flipping the dripping gobbets up for the creature to catch in his waiting maw. All the while, the damn thing stared at him, its lips pulled back in a feral smile. Cecil tried to ignore the man’s screams. He was just meat now. He had been torn open from throat to groin, and there were essential pieces missing from most of his organs. Ferox had picked through his victim like a rich woman plucking candies from a tray.

The Hunter drew his blade with one hand, his pistol held the other. He aimed the latter at Ferox, thumbing back the hammer with a click that was audible even over the roar of flames and the screams of the helpless. Ferox watched Cecil calmly as the Hunter began moving towards his prey. Cecil kept his movements slow and smooth, an echo of Ferox's own predatory grace. He had to get close enough for the pistol to be effective, and the damnable things weren't much good past ten or fifteen yards. But that was dangerously close to the creature’s own range. Ferox's breed was known more for savagery and strength of claw, but its fire would do the job, if Cecil let it.

Ferox stared at Cecil with mad, dangerous patience, his tail twitching back and forth in a hypnotic rhythm. Cecil kept his gaze locked with the beast’s and the pistol leveled at its head. He stalked closer. At any moment Ferox would make his move, and they would settle matters in the space of a few heartbeats. Cecil repeated the mantra that had been drilled into him: lead the target. Hold a breath. Squeeze the trigger. Clean kill, through the center mass. A shot to the head or the neck was ideal, but Cecil would not bet his life on being able to make a shot like that. He moved forward, one slow step at a time. He never took his eyes off of that grinning monster.

And then he fucking tripped.  It was a dead man’s hand, caught beneath his boot as Cecil paced across the cobbles. Cecil let out a curse. His finger, operating on nervous reflex, squeezed. A shot whined, went wild, and struck the cobbles. 

Ferox moved in a blur. Only years of training let Cecil tuck his legs up to protect his vulnerable belly before Ferox was on top of him, claws slashing down towards his face. Cecil managed to get his boots under him, kicking up into Ferox's chest. The force barely pushed Ferox back, but it was enough to keep those talons from taking his eyes.

Cecil grunted with the effort of keeping the whoreson off him, but held firm. Ferox was the size of Cecil’s horse, but far lighter for all of its terrible strength. The beast had a nasty, organic stench around him. Spilled blood and opened bowels, yes, but there was something else, too. A wet, charred smell like old sewage set to boil on a low flame.

The flame. The thought made Cecil shudder. If Ferox thought to breathe on him, Cecil’s head was going to be a brief, bright star. Cecil let his now-useless pistol spill from his hand, and shifted his sword into a two-handed grip. Ferox sensed the change, leaping back in a twisting pirouette just before Cecil could plunge his blade into the creature’s throat. Ferox landed gracefully on all fours, mouth open. A low, sibilant hiss mocked Cecil as the Hunter sprang to his feet.

And now it was time for the dance. Cecil’s tutors had disapproved of the term. It was too flowery, they said. Too romantic. “The point of a battle isn't to look good, fancy lad,” his master had often reminded him. “It’s to hit the beast with as many dirty tricks as you know, before it tears off your balls. There are caves and grottoes carpeted with the bones of idiots like you who thought battle was a dance.” But Cecil kept on using the term, despite the sarcastic quips and mocking jibes. There was beauty here, even in the midst of chaos. Dancing or fighting, it was all about footwork.

Cecil moved, avoiding the perils of the body-strewn battlefield. He wouldn't get lucky again. The next time he fell, he was going to die horribly. But he couldn't think about that. He moved, pacing slowly, one foot crossing in front of the other in smooth, even motions. Cecil watched Ferox. Ferox stared back at him with that flat, vaguely amused gaze. He couldn't shake the feeling that the creature was laughing at him. Cecil’s eyes shifted to his fallen pistol. Ferox's gaze snapped towards it, following Cecil’s lead. They stared at each other for a moment more, and then man and monster exploded into motion.

Cecil covered the few feet back towards his pistol in what felt like a single heartbeat. Ferox hunched down on the cobbles as if preparing to spring, muscles coiled, eyes blazing. And then, just as Ferox seemed about to spring, he grinned. It was a terrible sight. 

Cecil could see a tiny, flickering light at the back of Ferox's throat. He could hear the rush of breath drawing into the beast’s bellows, and see the shimmer of head-haze radiating from the creature’s torso. Ferox was about to breath incendiary death right into Cecil’s path.

The Hunter grinned. Ferox had made his fatal error.

Shifting directions in mid-stride, Cecil angled his step so that he bounced sideways. Ferox  unable to do anything but release the terrific pressures boiling inside of his body, exhaled a gout of fire that missed Cecil by a yard or less. In that moment when all dragons were helpless in the grip of their own awful might, Cecil lunged forward. His blade bit into the soft, dark-gray scales beneath Ferox's chin, the sword thrusting cleanly up into the brain. Cecil let out a roar as he rammed the blade home, the sound lost in the deafening blast of dragonfire. He felt the blade slide up and up, crunching through flesh, cartilage, bone and brain. Cecil watched it emerge from the back of Ferox's skull, the tip coated in slime and grey-flecked bone. Cecil let go of the blade as the body began to convulse, and felt a moment of exultation in the killing blow.

Victory did not come without a price, however. Burning fluid poured out of the wound. Most of it splashed harmlessly to the cobbles, sputtering nastily and blackening the stones. But a stray jet of the incendiary liquid caught the back of Cecil’s hand, melting the leather and burning the skin beneath all the way to the bone. Cecil tore his glove loose with a cry of agony and used it to scrape away leather, fluid, and flesh in molten slurry.  For a few moments, Cecil did nothing but cradle his hand and try to keep from screaming.

When he looked up the militiamen had reappeared, their faces ashy and disbelieving. They approached Cecil slowly, eyeing Ferox's  still-twitching corpse with the superstitious awe reserved for dead gods. Finally, the bravest among these conquering heroes prodded Ferox with a foot. When retribution was not forthcoming, he delivered a vicious kick which hit the hapless object with a meaty thud.

Cecil didn't hear the ragged cheers that went up, nor did he feel the slaps and thumps on his back as militiamen and villagers rushed out – though he did feel the renewed agony in his ribs as congratulations were inflicted on him. The story would grow with time. As it entered into local legend, the square would expand to accommodate more people than the town had ever held. But for now, Cecil looked between the dead dragon and his burned hand. He remembered the words emblazoned on the Hunter’s crest, and smiled in a distant way that made the villagers uneasy.

“We never count the cost.”
 

    Author

    Jamie Clements & Tom Stewart

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