Blood and Ash
In which Dodger battles a fantastic beast
“Dodger?” Boon said. “Is that you?”
Dodger groaned and smacked his dry mouth. “Who else would it be?”
“I suppose it is you then. Wake on up. We’ve got to move, fast.”
Dodger cracked his eyelids, wincing at the unexpected invasion of bright light. He blinked a few times, then stared at the halo of greenery above him. Glancing left, then right, Dodger found a line of trees surrounding him as he laid spread eagle on a patch of spongy grass.
Someone tugged at his sleeve.
“Come on,” Boon said. “Get on up. Our friend can’t hold it off alone.”
“I’m coming,” Dodger said.
He rolled onto his knees, pausing a moment to gather his wits before he got to his feet. Brushing down his clothes, Dodger caught a glance of black fabric under his hands. He looked down at himself, taking in the sight of an all black wardrobe; black slacks, black silk shirt, black vest, black gloves, a black bandana around his neck, even black leather boots. Once, eons ago it now seemed, he sported a black wardrobe all of the time. But it had been a lifetime since he dressed in such a manner. As he stood, the weight of guns settled at his hips. Dodger ran his hands across the gun belt—black, of course—and down to caress the weapons at his sides. The guns felt strange, but at the same time familiar, as if he had handled them once before but neither owned nor fired them himself.
“You got your bearings?” Boon asked.
“I think so,” Dodger said as he looked up to the spirit.
Only the man wasn’t a spirit. Boon appeared in full sunlight, solid as the grass he stood on, speaking aloud—all things the spirit couldn’t hope to accomplish.
“You’re …” Dodger started, but wasn’t quite sure how to finish it.
“I think this is yours,” Boon said as he held up a wide brimmed hat.
Black, of course.
Dodger ignored the hat and reached a hand out to Boon’s shoulder. Instead of the usual crackle of light and the sensation of running his finger through molasses, Dodger met with solid flesh. He tapped the man once, twice, three times, unwilling to believe what his senses were telling him.
“You’re …” Dodger started again.
Boon grinned down at Dodger. “I know, but there ain’t time to go over such details now.”
“Details? Boon, you’re … you’re … you knew this would happen, didn’t you?”
“Maybe, but it ain’t important-”
“It sure as hell is!”
Boon grabbed Dodger by the shoulder, and for the first time since Dodger met the spirit, he gained a real sense of the power behind the usually gentle giant. “Dodger! We can do this song and dance later. He needs our help.”
On the heels of Boon’s words, there came a loud roar and crash from Dodger’s left. The earth shook under their feet while thick, black smoke curled over the tops of the trees in the distance.
“What is that?” Dodger asked.
“Trouble,” Boon said. He plopped the hat onto Dodger’s head and nodded to the noise rising from the forest. “Come on. We have a ways to go. You showed up a good distance from the fight.” The man took off in a run for the forest.
Dodger could do nothing but swallow his curiosity and follow.
“What are we up against?” Dodger shouted as they sprinted through the forest.
“I told you!” Boon shouted over his shoulder.
“You said a dragon. Certainly you didn’t mean-”
Another roar sounded, drowning Dodger’s question as well as uncertainty. The ground shook once more—bringing the men to a standstill in order to keep their footing—followed by another loud roar.
“I meant what I said!” Boon yelled just under the roar.
Something drifted overhead, casting the men in a passing shadow. Between the gaps of pine boughs, Dodger could just make out a huge and scaly form brushing against the treetops. With it there came a cross breeze, bringing the scent of flames and smoke and death.
“Where’s Lelanea?” Dodger asked.
“I don’t know,” Boon said. “We will have to look for her after we are done taking care of this thing.”
A high pitched shriek pierced the air.
“Sounds like our friend landed a hit,” Boon said. With a smile, he took off again, doubling his speed and pulling quickly away from Dodger.
It was all Dodger could do to keep up with the long legged, not to mention younger, man. He pushed himself, running as fast and hard as he could. The pair ran and ran, dodging trees and jumping undergrowth and ducking low hanging branches. Dodger tried to judge the distance they were covering but between his legs screaming at him to slow down and his lungs struggling for each breath, he lost track of just how far they had come. By the time they reached the end of the trees, Dodger was left gasping for air. Boon, however, seemed barely winded.
“It’s through here,” Boon said, and pushed through the last bit of underbrush.
Dodger followed, stepping out of the tree line and into a heated brawl.
Just beyond the forest lay a burned and twisted swath of land, a ruined patch of earth carved out of the forest proper by fire and claw. On one side of this scorched valley sat a pile of human remains, stripped down to the charred bones. The beast that Dodger assumed was responsible for this devastation stood dead center in the gutted earth, howling in rage or pain or both. Dodger took one glance at the thing, only to rub his eyes, just to make sure the smoke and heat wasn’t blurring his vision.
“I’ll be damned,” Dodger said, still blinking.
“I know,” Boon said. “Isn’t it exciting? I’ve fought all manner of beast in the doc’s service, but never a dragon.”
At first, it struck Dodger as a cross between a lizard and a bird, seeing as how it stood on all fours, was covered in crimson scales from head to toe, yet sprouted a pair of enormous silver wings across its back. The thing was at least a good twenty feet long, tail included, and stood at about three fourths that height. It bore a diamond shaped head, in the spirit of a serpent, including enormous fangs and a huge forked tongue that slithered and writhed between its scaly lips. Rather than flapping up a breeze, the beast’s wings drooped on either side, dragging the ground, either wounded or exhausted. This didn’t slow the beast down one bit, for it thrashed its spiked tail and gnashed its huge teeth, snapping and swatting at the man trying hard to get near it.
“Have at you!” the man shouted, and waggled an enormous sword at the dragon.
The man’s words had a metallic edge to them, much like Mr. Torque, thanks to the fellow sporting a full suit of armor, head to toe, glinting bright enough to make Dodger wince. Surely all of that armor was restricting the man’s movements? Not to mention it had to be a thousand degrees under that plate mail and helmet, even without the occasional burst of flame from the beast. What kind of fool would wear a full suit of armor when coming up against a flying forge? That was just asking for a roasting.
Without warning, Boon broke out in an excited run, stumbling down the burned out gorge and straight into the line of battle. Dodger breathed deep a few times, trying to catch a much needed breath, before he raised the black bandana over his nose and followed the foolish man down the ravine and into the smoky fray. They came to rest behind the pile of skeletons, about two hundred feet from the fight. A broadsword almost as tall as Dodger lay resting against the bones, as if waiting for some gallant knight to snatch the blade up and jump into the fray.
Boon took a moment to draw his gun, and that’s when Dodger noticed that Boon’s guns were in fact Boon’s guns; the triple cylinder nine shots Dodger had grown to love. The man checked that Florence and Hortense were both loaded, before he returned each lady to her respective holster.
“What can I do to help?” Dodger asked.
“You’re armed,” Boon said as he yanked the blade from the soft, ashen earth. “Do what you do best.” He winked at Dodger before he raised his blade and ran off to join the fight.
Dodger wasn’t interested in swords against such a formidable foe, but Boon’s weapon check did bring up an interesting point. If Boon had the nine shooters, then what in the world was Dodger armed with? Dodger yanked one of the pistols from its holster intent on inspecting the thing. He didn’t get a chance, for the moment he pulled the weapon, a sheet of flame blew past the boulder, almost roasting Dodger alive with a back draft of heat. In a rush, he made sure the gun—a familiar looking revolver, six shots total, shells, fully loaded—was ready and then scooted around the mound of bones to make sure he had a clean shot.
“Come at me, you beast!” the man in armor shouted as he waved his blade about in the hot air.
The knight had a good grip on his tactics, thrusting and dodging in a cool and collected manner. Boon, on the other hand, darted in and out of the action, swiping at the dragon in broad, uncontrolled movements. While the knight stood a good chance of landing a strike or two, Boon simply stood the chance of getting his fool head bitten off.
“Boon!” Dodger shouted.
Boon glanced up at Dodger.
“Get yourselves out of the line of fire!” Dodger yelled.
After nodding his understanding, Boon grabbed the mystery man by the arm and pulled him aside, the pair of them retreating behind the relative safety of the skeletal mound. The beast seemed confused by the sudden withdrawal. It howled, snorting flames into the air as it shuffled forward, intent on following its prey. Dodger lined up his weapon, taking a steady aim, then fired.
The gun came alive in a shower of sparks followed by an ear splitting boom. An arc of fire spewed forth from the barrel, tracing the path of the bullet as it struck the beast in the face. The dragon’s head snapped to one side as it shrieked aloud in pain. When it turned to look at the source of the shot, Dodger could see he had taken one of the beast’s eyes.
“Nicely done!” Boon yelled from behind the heap of bones.
“Well played, good sir!” the stranger yelled.
The roar of the wounded dragon spurred Dodger into action. He reset the hammer, firing again and again. Each time the gun discharged, a line of flame followed the bullet, as if the ammo set the air itself on fire during its speedy journey to its target. Dodger kept on resetting and firing until he heard the telltale click of an empty chamber.
The beast—what was left of its head now thick with oozing gunshot wounds—stumbled about, trying to keep on its feet. Dodger backed away from the thing, allowing it plenty of room to give up the ghost. After a dancing about clumsily for a few more moments, it came crashing down in a dramatic swoop, from rump to chest, until the length of its long neck snapped up and down again in a final rebound of pent up energy, slamming its head into the ground with a resounding clap. The dragon’s nostrils fumed in a dying flame.
Once the earth ceased rumbling, Boon peered out from behind the heap of bones. “Is it dead?”
Dodger yanked the bandana from his face as he returned his weapon to its holster. “I think so. If not then it won’t be very long until it is.”
“Dear sir,” the stranger said in a tinny echo from behind the helmet, “that was a fantastic display of bravery.”
“Would’ve been easier if I had a barrel of coffee.”
“I understand that dragons are allergic to the stuff.”
“Really? I’ve never heard such a thing.” The man held out his armored hand. “Either way, allow me to commend you on your success in dispatching this awful beast. You performed most admirably.”
Dodger shook the man’s armored hand wincing at the heat of the gauntlet. “Aren’t you hot under all that?”
“This?” The man knocked his own breastplate, chuckling under the echo. “I am used to it. Full battle armor is the way of the knight.”
“Knight you say?”
“Of course.” The stranger grabbed the edges of his helmet and wiggled the thing from his head.
Dodger was tempted to rub his eyes again at the sight of the young man.
Standing before him was an exact duplicate of Dodger, only twenty years younger. Same thick raven hair, same chiseled chin, same crooked nose. The man could’ve been Dodger’s twin.
“What in the hell-” Dodger started.
“Arnold,” Boon said over him. “This is Sir Rodger Dodger.”
Dodger nodded to the doppelganger. “I can see that.”
“Sir Rodger here is part of Her Majesty’s Royal Court. He is on a special assignment to find the missing Princess Sarah.”
“Princess?” Dodger asked.
Boon smiled. In that smile came a plea to just go along with whatever Boon said.
Dodger tried to send a thought out to Boon, via underspeak. I ain’t playing along until I know what’s really going on here.
Boon didn’t say anything, underspeak or otherwise. He just kept grinning like a mad man.
“And who do I have the pleasure of meeting?” Sir Rodger asked.
“This is Arnold Carpenter,” Boon said. “He is with me.”
“Well met, Mr. Carpenter,” Sir Rodger said, and tucked his helmet under his arm as he held out his hand again.
Ignoring the knight, Dodger stared hard at Boon. Don’t you ignore me. Tell me what this is about. Why does he look like me?
“Arnold,” Boon said. “Don’t be rude.”
Dodger took the hand of his clone and shook it with more force than needed, a reaction to his pent up frustrations. Either Boon was just ignoring the underspeak or it didn’t work dreamside. Dodger reckoned there was no way to really tell until he could get the man alone. “I am sorry, I was miles away. My name is Arnold Carpenter. It is a unique pleasure to meet you, Sir Rodger Dodger.” He didn’t know what felt more strange on his tongue, calling someone else by his own name, or speaking the Sir before it.
Sir Rodger didn’t seem a bit bothered by Dodger’s enthusiastic handshake. If anything, the knight bore into his grip harder, pumping Dodger’s hand with as much gusto. “The pleasure is all mine, good-”
“Look out!” a familiar voice yelled.
Dodger turned to his left just in time to spy a wild wolf sprinting across the ashen earth, heading right for him. Even if Dodger hadn’t emptied his guns, the wolf was already too close to draw and fire upon in time. It was also too close for Dodger to cut and run. The best he could do was dig in his heels, put up his arms and prepare for the onrush of fur and fang.