Torrents of wind pushed across the surface of the sea like an invisible galley’s hull cutting the water. The churn came from the relentless wingbeats of the dragon swooping low toward the shoreline. Months of flying across the ocean had led him here—a remote island on the crimson seas that spanned for miles. His breaths were ragged as he made landfall, careening into the sand in an explosion of dirt and salt spray.
Hours passed. The dragon slept in a fitful sleep. Terrible dreams of a past life haunted him. Men with swords and thunderous explosions destroyed his former home in the mountains. Decimating his kin. He awoke and roared on the beach—rage and grief piercing the quiet night. Ravenous hunger clawed at his stomach, but he couldn’t find the strength to move. So he collapsed on the sand and let the nightmares resume.
Dawn ushered stronger hunger pangs and a frightening discovery. Off the coast of the island, the dragon saw the diminutive shape of a caravel. His instinct compelled him to fly and burn the ship immediately. But his exhausted, starving body would not permit him to. Instead, he slithered across the beach toward the interior, sweeping his tail left to right across the sand to cover his trail.
The island’s interior was an overgrown jungle punctuated by massive peaks at its center. Traversing through the cramped trees and underbrush tired the dragon further, but he pressed forward until he found a shallow cave at the base of a mountain. He hid the lower half of his body in the cave leaving his upper half exposed—the dense vegetation around him would suffice as camouflage for now.
His plan was simple. If the sailors made landfall—and he could not imagine why they wouldn’t this far out in the sea—they would likely explore the island for food and firewood. They would not expect a dragon lying in wait. He didn’t care for human flesh—preferring livestock or elves instead—but he’d rather feast on men than starve to death. Sustenance wasn’t the only motivation though. Men were responsible for his current predicament—alone on an unknown island without his kind. He may well be the last of the dragons. If that were so, he’d make an oath. Every man to cross his path would suffer a terrible death. Single-handedly, the dragon would burn all of mankind to ash. Their memory would fade like a passing wind on the sea. The thought comforted him despite his weariness and he soon drifted asleep.
Twigs snapped in the darkness. Something approached in the jungle. The dragon lifted his head slightly, shifting his eyes as they adjusted to the dark world around him. He sniffed the air. A man! Close to the cave. An unfortunate explorer nearing his demise. He dug his claws into the cool sand, ready to pounce on his prey. Then he glimpsed the man, though he wasn’t a man at all. It was a child. A small boy carrying a sack and a torch. The dragon cursed his luck. This creature would scarcely make a fitting meal! But a little food was better than none at all.
He watched the boy and waited patiently as he drew closer. The child crouched near a narrow trail in the jungle and took something out of his sack. Ropes and small pieces of bread. He was setting traps for game. The dragon snickered at the irony.
“Hello? Who goes there?” The boy said, standing abruptly from the ground.
He’d heard the dragon snickering, and that angered the hidden beast. The boy had to die now before he alerted the crew of his ship. But the dragon hesitated as the boy walked closer toward him. Something about this human intrigued him. When the boy was close enough for him to grasp the dragon spoke.
“Utter another sound, child, and I will devour you whole,” the dragon said.
The boy lifted his torch and gazed at the snarling beast before him. But he showed no sign of fear or even disgust. Rather, his eyes had a certain awe about him.
“Are you alone in the jungle?” The dragon asked.
The boy nodded.
“How very foolish of you. What parents would allow their whelp to wander in darkness and danger?”
“I have no parents,” the boy whispered.
“How unfortunate,” the dragon said. His mind solely on his appetite. “But you did not sail here alone. What of your crewmates? How many do they number, boy?”
“There are twenty of us.”
Twenty men to feast on. The dragon’s belly rumbled. Perhaps his luck was finally turning.
“Do you intend to eat us all, dragon?” The boy asked.
“I do. I assure you it will not be painless. Your kind must suffer for what you’ve done!”
“Will you promise to make them suffer first?”
“The pirates who brought me here. I am their slave. They killed mama and papa. Now I serve them and they beat me.”
“You will gain no sympathy from me, child. Lies and deceit are your people’s stock in trade! I will kill you quickly then devour your slavers. That is the only favor I wish to grant.”
The boy nodded slowly, not fazed by the dragon’s cruel words. “But dragons don’t care for human flesh. We have barrels of salted beef in the hold. If I bring them will you burn them and their miserable ship?”
The dragon’s stomach cramped at the mention of beef. He could not believe the audacity of this foolish child. And yet, his tenacity impressed him. But his skepticism resurfaced.
“Do you expect me to trust you, boy? The moment you step foot on that ship you will alert the crew to my presence and sabotage my plans!”
“No. I will not,” the boy said. His eyes unflinching and devoid of falsehood. “Even if I betrayed you, twenty pirates could not stop you. I know the tales of dragons. They cannot win against you.”
The dragon glared at the boy, but as before, he did not show a hint of fear. And he found no trace of deceit in him either. Against his better judgment, the dragon let the boy go on the condition he bring back a barrel of salted beef before dawn.
To his surprise, the whelp returned a few hours before dawn dragging a barrel behind him. The dragon split the barrel open with his claws and tore through the meat with delight. Sitting on a rock nearby, the boy watched him devour the beef with mild fascination.
“My name is Karlo. What is yours?” The boy asked.
The dragon snorted then raised a scaly brow. “I don’t care for idle talk while I feed. But if you must know, I am called Zogor.”
An awkward silence fell over them interrupted only by Zogor’s chomping and slurping of beef.
“Is there any more, Karlo the slave?” Zogor asked, licking the broken wood of the meat barrel.
“Yes, but I cannot fetch it now. The crew will be awake soon and they will catch me if I bring another barrel.”
“What is that to me? Bring more beef or you’ll serve as my next meal!”
Zogor had a sense he couldn’t cow the boy to do his bidding even as the words escaped his mouth. Sure enough, Karlo shook his head at the suggestion. Instead, he offered to bring the dragon more beef the following night and reminded him of their pact.
“What pact?” Zogor asked incredulously.
“You will spare my life long enough to destroy the Desolate Harpy and her crew. Then do with me as you please,” Karlo said confidently.
Zogor laughed. He liked this boy. There was a resolute strength to him that even he, a mortal enemy of men, could admire. It was a shame he’d have to kill the child. Under the right circumstances, Karlo could be useful to him. Still, he could not bring himself to break his oath. The boy would die too.
After agreeing to Karlo’s plan, they parted and Zogor rested in his modest cave dwelling the rest of the day. His strength was returning. Soon he’d ignite this miserable island and the humans on the beach.
In the middle of the night, Karlo returned with two more barrels of beef. Zogor consumed the meat happily then rested in the cool sand outside the cave. Puffs of smoke floated from his nostrils contentedly. He caught sight of Karlo leaning against a nearby tree. The boy’s shoulders drooped, and he was favoring his right side. Zogor smelled blood. A thin stripe of red stood out on Karlo’s white shirt.
“What happened, boy?” Zogor asked.
“The captain whipped me. He said I didn’t swab the decks well enough. He will find out about the missing barrels and then kill me.”
Zogor made a rumbling sound in his throat. “You will have your vengeance soon enough, Karlo.”
Dawn arrived sooner than Zogor expected. The large helpings of meat caused him to doze longer than before. Karlo slept comfortably amid a collection of bushes near the cave. He stirred when the dragon stretched his wings and flexed his aching muscles.
“Is it now?” Karlo asked.
“Will you take me? I want to be there when it happens.”
The dragon frowned, but understood the boy’s desire to witness his captors’ demise. Never in the annals of history had a dragon allowed a human—a child, no less—to ride him. But the entire situation was without precedent. Zogor loathed himself for relying on Karlo. And yet, if he were honest, a small part of him longed for this…connection. Disparate as he and Karlo were, they shared a common enemy.
Zogor stooped his head, allowing Karlo to climb onto his long neck and sit between the bony spikes protruding there. In an instant, the dragon leapt into the air and flapped his wings—snapping branches and knocking trees aside in his wake. The humid air above the island felt refreshing on Zogor’s dry scales. He banked to the right and saw the Desolate Harpy alongside the shoreline. Small figures moved frantically on the beach. The crew had spotted them.
Karlo clutched Zogor’s neck tightly as the dragon dove toward the ship. On account of his full stomach, Zogor decided not to feast on these wretched seamen. They were not worthy of his appetite. Only death by flames would be suitable.
Fire exploded from Zogor’s mouth onto the grimy deck of the Desolate Harpy. A dozen men aboard tried desperately to put out the inferno, but they perished in their efforts. On land, sailors shot muskets in a vain attempt to strike him down. With a low sweep of his tail, Zogor launched the men into the air and laughed as their bodies crashed onto the ground. Others fled toward the trees. Another blast of fire annihilated them and started an uncontrollable blaze in the jungle.
When Zogor finally landed, the Desolate Harpy had capsized and bodies littered the sand. Karlo dismounted, surveying the carnage before him with unnatural stillness. He faced the dragon, eyes wet and brows furrowed. “Thank you,” he said in a broken voice.
Karlo closed his eyes, waiting for Zogor to deal the final blow. But it never came. The dragon could not sever the tie he had made with this child of men. His kin would murder him and curse his name for eons for being an oath breaker. But they were not here anymore. He took the boy onto his back and they flew away from the island into the endless horizon.