Castor took account of his creature comforts. Few were afforded in this climate. North Dakota in January had enough reputation for creating frozen oil drillers. None of the group of four reckoned adding “dragon slayers” among the professions to be preserved in ice.
“You shouldn’t be burning that without ventilation,” a voice chastised, curling one eyebrow towards a butane camp stove. Her teeth chattered despite her best efforts to hide her discomfort. The water had only just begun to show signs of boiling.
“Feel free, Stephanie,” Castor replied, with an arm motioned towards the flap of the large arctic tent, “let in some of that brisk morning air.”
She shot a laser beam glare as a rebuke to the suggestion. An attempt was made to conjure a scoff but her quivering jaw rendered it simply a sharp exhale.
“I’m in no rush to become a popsicle here, Castor. Crank the heat on that thing so we can get this coffee going.”
Castor eyed the huge frame of his bodyguard. At 6’3” and 240lbs, he looked more at home playing middle linebacker for the 1980’s Chicago Bears than he did out here on the windswept snow. “That’s a shame, Chip,” Castor replied, “finding a caveman in ice would make me a rich man.”
Chip grumbled as he rubbed his shoulders with crossed arms, “Yeah, yeah. Very fucking funny. You’d just better hope they never thaw me out.”
“I’m just saying, if one wants to pull off the cool, calm, and collected cliche, it’s hard to do that better than being frozen solid.” Castor tilted his head, he was going to enjoy this stupid discussion.
The kid chuckled, which drew out another comment from Stephanie, “Don’t laugh at his jokes, it’ll only make him try to tell more.” This made the quiet Thao retreat, ducking his head into his oversized parka a bit.
Castor repurposed the plastic spoon he was using to scoop coffee grounds into a pointer, “look, Kid. She ain’t your Mom. Didn’t you get out here for a bit of freedom, anyway?”
“He got out here for an internship - and unpaid one,” the small head motion from Stephanie added to the playful venom she implanted in that retort.
“Hey now, I’ve got the talking stick. Not you.”
“That’s not a stick,” the insides of her eyebrows furrowed, “that’s a spoon.”
“My name’s on the tent,” which was true. The large lettering of Castor’s Unusual Pest Removal Service was painstakingly stenciled on the portable structure, “and I’ll determine what’s a spoon or a talking stick while we’re in it.” He smirked, it was ridiculous reasoning, but ridiculous reasoning often didn’t have counterarguments.
The other tent inhabitants sighed in tandem. But their breath had only begun to escape when it was stopped short by a long nasally shriek. It rang in a barely-perceptible pitch until it broadened and dropped into a gurgling, disgusting roar.
Coffee forgotten, the scramble in the tent was a controlled chaos. Items had been laid out for quick access, and the members of the hunting party were swiftly affixing their hats and equipment. Thao had little to prepare, and stood silent as he wrung his mittens together. He was studying to be a marine biologist yet found himself roped into the only internship available over winter break for the credit load he wanted.
Chip loaded a belt into a machine gun that no one dared ask him whether was legal to own or not. He stole a glance at the kid and muttered advice out of a dull compassion, “just hang back. Don’t stand too close to any of us and try to hang out under any trees you can find.”
Teenagers didn’t often ponder the prospect of their own death seriously. But at 16, Thao Vang was doing exactly that. He heavily considered just staying in the tent.
"What? He’ll be just fine!” Castor flashed a smile from one side of his face. “You know, they’re just as scared of us as we are of them. Kinda like snakes.”
“Snakes don’t fly, idiot.” Steph’s voice rang out flatly.
“You don’t fly.”
Steph rolled her eyes hard as she donned her large, crooked hat. “I really hate that I get my paychecks from you. I really do.”
"Hate is a strong word.”
"So are Fuck and You. You got a plan, or should I do all the heavy lifting?” she finally cracked a smile, knowing she’s won that verbal tussle.
“Yeah,” Castor said, “get there and then we’ll see.”
“What’s funny?” the kid asked.
Chip angled a wry smirk at the teenager, “that’s how all my marriages started.”
“Well, we’re here. I don’t see shit.” Steph had to nearly shout above the sound of the blowing snow. “We’re gonna have to find our lizard somewhere else.”
“Ha, that’s how all my marriages ended!” Chip beamed a smile wide beneath his oversized skiing goggles and looked back at the kid, who didn’t share the humor. “Whatever, that was fucking funny,” Chip muttered to himself.
The plains they had traversed at least two miles of eventually dipped down towards a river valley. Sudden terrain seemed to spring out of seemingly nowhere in North Dakota. The flatland gave way to a deep ravine carved by a waterway over the course of a few hundred years. In a blizzard, this would likely have been the only reprieve from the punishing winds.
Thao mostly thought of how cold and tired he was, but in the back of his head he also wondered just how a cold-blooded animal could survive here. Wing material was known to be a source of solar energy reception, which had led to some breakthroughs in energy technology. Could it really work well enough to keep one warm here?
Castor’s wispy mustache and beard were caked in snow. He slid in closer to the group, the four of them all utilizing cross country skis. “Well, Steph, I’ll bet this is where it beds down. Reckon it’s time for you to do your thing, eh?”
“Reckon? Aren’t you from Iowa?”
“Yeah, I reckon I am.” he replied with a ridiculous southern accent. “Now reckon me a dragon, would ya?”
Steph exhaled and closed her eyes. She collected her thoughts before a determined and sharp look upward at the horizon.
“Give her some space, kid,” Chip said to Thao, backing up slowly. Thao and Castor did the same. Steph removed her parka, revealing underneath a deep red robe, matching the color of her tall, crooked hat. With both hands she held a carved walking stick in front of her. She began to whisper, repeating herself over and over in an incantation.
“What is she saying?” Thao asked.
“I dunno, I don’t speak creole.” Chip answered.
“It’s the recipe for a gumbo is my theory,” Castor said quietly.
Castor glared over, “what the fuck, kid, you’ve never had gumbo? Oh man, we’re totally going to Louisiana on our next contract. You wouldn’t belie-”
“Shut up.” Chip said sternly. All obeyed.
In unison, they watched as the edges of Stephs curled, black hair began to free itself from the effects of gravity under the brim of her hat. It swayed like an anemone in the ocean current. Then, with sudden force, she slammed the staff down into the snow in front of her, striking solidly the frozen tundra underneath.
The trio felt a wave of heat emit as if they opened an oven too swiftly. The snow in a ten foot radius from the witch had melted instantly, and scorched into the earth was a singed and sulfurous ring.
Steph remained silent and still for a moment. Without opening her eyes she said plainly, “Castor, now’s the time.”
Slipping off his pack, Castor pulled at the zipper and produced a sack from the top. He tossed it over at Steph’s feet, the loose drawstring giving way and spilling a pile of gold coins into the middle of the ring.
“What’s that?” Thao asked.
“Uh, it’s gold. Dragons love gold. Haven’t you ever read Tolkien? This is 101 stuff,” Castor chimed in, moving on from his pack to unzipping the padded rifle case he had been lugging along.
Thao looked at Chip for confirmation, but he’d already removed himself from his skis and pushed towards the ravine, scouting out a good position to both hide and fire from. The teen spun around again towards Steph, she was busy walking the immediate area and laying down warding spells.
Castor pulled an ornate rifle that looked more at place in a 1930’s hunting photo than on a Dragon expedition. He worked the action on the bolt, chambering a large round. Thao caught his attention for a moment as he peered at him standing alone and huddled.
“Hey kid, are you scared or something?”
“N...” he shivered, “n...no.”
“I know good liars.” Castor pulled the sling over his head and grasped the gun with both hands firmly. “And you, uh..." Castor trailed off with a smale.
With little ceremony, the hunter then turned and started making progress towards higher ground. The Thao spotted the only pine tree in the ravine and tucked himself deeply into its branches.
Thao could smell it before he saw it. The wind had kicked up and flurries had cut visibility down to maybe a hundred yards. That sulfuric air mixed with rotting carcass between the teeth of the ancient beast swirled in the atmosphere with the snow.
There was a cry of excitement from a rock top that sounded like Castor. Thao couldn’t see the beast, but he heard the displacement of air as its large, leathery wings flapped hard enough to keep an animal the same weight as an elephant aloft. It stole the air around it, like a house fire, as the pressures desperately tried to rebalance.
In a break between the gusts, the teenager saw Castor right as the shot rang out. The large caliber rifle jolted his shoulder in a violent and sudden thrust. Then, Castor inexplicably jumped clear off the rock. After a pelting burst of belched fire cascaded over, it became clear why.
In reply, Chip’s machine gun spat out a long volley, chattering into the white void. Thao was at first afraid that Chip may be spraying directly at his friends, but he could barely make out the tracer rounds traversing through the air above. It seemed like a scene from WWII, and the allies were desperately trying to land hits on an axis dive bomber.
A defiant laugh pierced through the small silences. Castor must have been okay. Chip had expended an entire 200 round belt and was in the middle of reloading another when Steph’s voice came in a 360 degree circle around him. It seemed like a loud whisper, like an ethereal voice.
In front of him he started to see the winds converge and gather miraculously. Bit by bit, all the airborne flurries and snow gathered into a ball - like some amazing power from a saturday morning cartoon. All outside that ball became deathly still.
For the first time, Thao got an unadulterated glimpse of the terrible lizard. His throat glowed, even in the noon sun, its furnace belly churning. To keep the Dragon’s breath hot he cycled air in putrid, disgusting grunts. The beating of his wings could be seen disturbing the snow on the ground as the displaced air diffused from under him. It looked like red death itself.
With a violent shift, the condensed pocket of swirling air shifted skyward and towards the dragon. The beast careened and dodged the pocket once, but it was not more nimble than pure air. Steph piloted the ball directly under the dragon as it pivoted and stole all the lift the monster had. The monster careeneed towards the earth, kicking up a dump truck’s worth of dirt as it collided.
Thao, hiding under a fir tree, was not protected well by the branches. The beast felt merely a hundred feet in front of him. After being blasted with flying earth, he felt a warm drizzle over his left eye. Reaching up, and touching his brow with his glove, he discovered he was bleeding and had no way of telling just how bad.
But he was frozen, unable to do anything. Castor appeared over the embankment and launched another round into the lizard. Whatever round he was shooting seemed to have an effect. The dragon lurched in an involuntary flinch of pain and reflexively launched a weak exhale of disgusting magma breath at the shooter. Castor had barely rolled out of the way in time. It was obviously hurt, a bone sticking out of one wing was pouring a dark, clumpy stream of coagulating blood.
Chip had repositioned and got his gun back up. Thao cowered as a shower of rounds hit the dragon. He was afraid of a ricochet. The beast was irritated by this mightily, and inhaled deeply. Unsure of the origin of the pelting, it sprayed wildly everywhere, with the fury of a cornered animal. Thao gasped as he saw the wall of fire speeding his way. He closed his eyes and covered his head.
Just as he expected to be burned alive, he felt a paralyzing chill. A wind swept across him sideways at a hurricane force, ripping many of the branches from the top of the tree. Pine needles embedded hard into his hair and clothes.
He was knocked flat. He was disoriented, but could look up to see the top of Steph’s crooked hat flying in the wind just ahead of him, and her voice still simmering slowly in the echoes. She’d blown the inferno clear of him.
“Cover me!” Castor yelled, as he slid down the embankment on his backside like a penguin, rifled raised. Chip let forward a hard, distracting burst. Steph rechanneled her energy to swirl hard around the dragon’s head.
Castor athletically sprang to his feet just where the embankment began to flatten out and sprinted hard to cover the last hundred feet of the dragon. Mere yards away from the flailing beast, he planted his feet and raised the rifle, looking for the right spot.
He never got the chance. The tail of the lizard swung wildly in a desperate panic, slapping him in the middle of the chest hard and sending him a dozen feet aside. He dropped everything. The rifle flew.
Just then, the chatter of the machine gun stopped. Chip cried out several vulgar curses before declaring it had jammed. Steph emerged from her hiding spot, walking towards the dragon, focusing all her energy on distracting it as the reprieve from bullets gave it enough awareness to see Castor lying on the ground, still.
Steph worked her hands in a wild fury, but you could see the panic in her eyes. The dragon lurched and crawled itself towards Castor, trying to churn up a flame as it was pelted with winds left and right.
But the distractions were not enough. It turned and launched a snotty, molten spew at Steph. She dodged, throwing herself off her feet to the side to narrowly escape the attack. All the wind died down silent. She rose again quickly and tried to build the momentum again, but there wouldn’t be time.
The dragon turned back towards Castor. He wouldn’t bother with the flame. Teeth would do. Red tinted slobber dribbled down its
four foot fangs as it opened its mouth.
Thao glimpsed the rifle, which landed half the distance between him and the dragon as Castor was knocked away. He willed himself to go for it, but was yet frozen. Steph threw what she could muster at the dragon, but it was much too little. She couldn’t churn up the energy in time.
Chip cried out in anguish, unable to stop what was about to happen. The loss in his voice already practiced, an anguish that was old and about to be renewed. Thao had never experienced such resignation as he was now witnessing. Simultaneously, it broke his heart... and enraged it.
I’ve never fired a gun before, he thought, several strides of a dead sprint towards the rifle. He knew they had a safety and other mechanisms. He prayed that Castor had left it in condition to fire.
Steph had yelled something to Thao, but he could not hear it. His vision tunneled hard on the gun. His lungs burned with the cold air. He was not an athlete, but he was running with everything he had.
He threw himself on top of the gun. He grasped it up and held it awkwardly. Looking through the peep sight on the rear, he acquired the front sight and knew only to put that somewhere on the dragon - like a video game. He tried to squeeze the trigger, but he was still wearing his mitten.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” he yelled and flopped his arm several times to get the glove to fall off. It finally did, and Thao poked the caked snow out of the trigger-well and placed his finger on the proper spot. His teary eyes almost obscured his vision, but not enough. He squeezed hard, and the rifle bucked into his shoulder with enough force to knock him back. He heard a crunch. Holding the gun improperly, he instinctively knew he had just broken his collarbone.
The lizard flinched wildly and buckled as the round sailed into its hind leg. Its rear dropped, and the dragon curled around in a blind rage. Its front legs clawed up frozen tundra as it pulled itself around to face the teenager. It bellowed back at him with pure hatred.
Fully crying from the pain, Thao raised the rifle again, knowing he would pulverize his shoulder further. But he had to survive. He couldn’t see the sights anymore, but he pointed in the direction of the dragon and pulled the trigger again.
The dragon pulled itself wildly in an unhinged clamor along the ground, like a drowning dog, consumed with nothing but the prospect of mauling the boy mercilessly. Thao tried the trigger again and again, but the gun would not fire.
He could see the hot glow of the dragon’s throat, preparing a molten end. The dragon did not even seem to have focused sight, operating on pure fury and smell. Its dark blood sliming behind it like a terrible slug.
Thao thought of his family. He cried harder. The resignation he heard in Chip he felt in himself. All he could do was wait.
A searing pain entered his body. He thought this was it, he was being engulfed in flames. But it only sailed through the right side of his body, and he heard the crunch of snow beside him. As he involuntarily crumpled toward the pain he saw boots in the snow beside him.
Steph had reached his side and ripped the rifle from his hands. Deftly, she racked the bolt, feeding a live round into the chamber and dropping the casing of the last round Thao had shot right in front of the kid.
The dragon reared back, elevating its neck and heated its throat for a final burst. As it did, the mouth opened. Steph exhaled slowly and unleashed a shot into the roof of the dragon’s mouth, sailing clean through the skull cavity and exploding out of the back, creating a fountain of brains, crimson black blood, and jagged bone fragments.
The beast collapsed like a building demolition, its head slamming the earth like a meteor. The built-up pressure of his inferno breath unleashed still after his death. Some escaped his mouth, the rest coming from his new brain ventilation hole as the fire sought any path of escape from its belly. Thao and Steph stood between the two spurts and watched them rage then, eventually, die out.
Thao, head buried half in the snow, watched the rifle drop in front of him.
“It’s a bolt action, kid. You gotta put a new round in every time.” Steph said cooly as she began to make her way towards Castor. “But not bad, ya did alright. I’ll make sure your professor knows you were helpful to our research.”
Thao wouldn’t wake up for another few hours. But even when he did, warm in a hospital bed, he still felt the chill.