For 2022, I’ve been wanting to write more ‘creature features’ and generally improve my short story writing. My partner got me a Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual for my birthday so I came up with the idea of writing a story every week based on a different creature from that – All There in the (Monster) Manual. Hope you enjoy!
This Week’s Inspiration: Red Dragon
The Red Menace is the greatest threat to face the rule of Owain the Just. A lone knight rides out against the dragon that has raided the kingdom’s treasuries and kidnapped its princess but the battle is very different from what he expected.
Hoofbeats clattered against stone as the honourable Sir Roderick rode hard to the outskirts of his liege’s kingdom. His magnificent white charger did not appear slowed by its gleaming armour or Roderick’s heavy plate, or the weight of the knight’s weapons. A single flag, affixed to the back of Roderick’s saddle, unfurled behind him. The banner of his house, twin swords bordering a golden serpent on a red background.
King Owain called the creature the greatest threat to face his kingdom. He’d named it the Red Menace. That was even before the dragon kidnapped his only child, the fair Princess Catherine. The dragon raided the treasuries of the king and his nobles to feed its insatiable greed for gold. It preyed upon the kingdom’s livestock, and burned noble houses to the ground. Its wings blackened the sky. Its claws were iron and its breath brought death.
The mouth of an enormous cave system gaped on the hillside ahead. Rocks like fangs framed the entrance. Roderick negotiated his way up the slope. Most of the trees surrounding the hillside were blackened and crumbling to ashes, turning the soil black. The smell of old smoke hung in the air.
Roderick’s charger whickered and stomped nervously. The knight dismounted and tied his horse to some nearby rocks. One eye stayed on the mouth of the cave. Plate armour clanking, he released his sword from its scabbard with a hiss. Sunlight caught on the blade. The man wore a helmet but its faceplate was tilted back to reveal his handsome countenance, although he looked pale and sweaty from the journey and from thoughts of the task ahead. Swallowing, he started toward the cave. His armour clicked with each step.
“Serpent! Fell beast, monster!” Roderick’s voice echoed from just inside the shadow of the cave. “Come out and face me! Return the princess and your death will be mercifully swift!”
When no answer came, Sir Roderick had no choice but to venture deeper. His sword, hilt clutched in both gauntlets, tremored. Soot filled Roderick’s nostrils. Something crackled underfoot. Looking about as his eyes adjusted, the knight saw blackened bones and whole skeletons scattered along the passageway. He’d entered a charnel house. Most of the skeletons were animals, sheep and pigs and horses, but he also saw bones and skulls that were recognisably human. Roderick swallowed harder but continued forward, carefully.
“Reveal your-, yourself!” Roderick shouted.
Turning a corner in the cavern, Roderick saw a glimmer of yellow light ahead. Gold, gold, an ocean of gold streaming between stalagmites and columns of rock. Gold coins and roughly hewn bricks as well as coins and slabs made of other precious metals. Jewellery and jewels, and sculptures, and other artworks and precious things, all haphazardly dumped and tossed across a yawning cavity inside the mountain. Holes had been punched through the roof of the cave so that shafts of sunlight could gleam off the gold and jewels. Sir Roderick’s eyes glittered. There was more wealth here than in all the kingdom. In all of the surrounding kingdoms. This was nations of wealth. Moisture seemed to leave his mouth. His gaze scanned the cavern but he didn’t see any sign of the dragon or of Princess Catherine.
“Monster! Red Menace, show thyself!”
There was a long, pregnant silence after Roderick’s words had echoed off the far walls of the cavern and died. Then, Roderick heard the sound of gold coins clicking together. At the very centre of the cave was the largest heap of precious metal. It shifted, a few tumbling coins turning into a small avalanche. The pile heaved and more gold crashed to the ground to reveal bright red scales beneath. Claws and spines and wings. The dragon raised itself on four stout legs, stretching like a cat woken from a long nap in a sunbeam. Unfurling, each of its wings was at least as long as half a dozen horses at full gallop. A yellow glare swept around the cavern and snared Roderick by the entrance. Shaking the ground, the Red Menace approached slowly. A monstrous tail swept around behind it, spraying golden coins into the air. The noble knight didn’t move. Couldn’t move.
“Who calls?” The dragon said in a voice like rumbling thunder.
“I-, I am Sir Roderick Dorian, knight in the service of the honourable and just King Owain the Fair,” Roderick replied in a halting voice.
Up close, the dragon seemed even bigger. Its body was as long as several carriages parked in a row, with sharp quills running the length of its spine. Its neck was serpentine but thick and muscular enough to support a head the size of a fishing boat. A slash of a smile crossed the Red Menace’s face, revealing teeth like swords. Streamers of smoke wafted from its slitted nostrils.
“And what can I do for you, Sir Roderick Dorian, knight in the service of the honourable and just King Owain the Fair?” A smell of brimstone and cooked meat wafted from the beast’s mouth.
“I am here to make you answer for your crimes!” Roderick’s voice gained strength as a sense of purpose reinstated itself within his breast and steadied his hands. “Where is the princess? Bring her to me and I will make your end swift and painless!”
“She is close by, but what crimes are these? The crimes I have committed, of which you speak?”
“Thievery and murder.” Roderick cast his eyes around at the piles of glittering gold and jewels. “You have pillaged from the kingdom’s treasuries and consumed dozens of heads of livestock belonging to the king and his lords!”
“I am a creature indigenous to this area, it is your people who have colonised and cleared these lands to raise your animals. I have only taken what I need to survive, as my once proud hunting grounds have been razed and my native prey annihilated or driven to greener fields. From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”
“And the gold? The jewels? What need do you have of these treasures, demon?”
“I could ask the same of your liege and lords, what need have they of gold and treasure?”
Sir Roderick spluttered. “But-, well, it is theirs by right of possession! They have earned it!”
“Earned it how?” Fire glowed at the back of the dragon’s throat and its eyes blazed. “Through inheritance? Conquest?”
“Well, there’s taxes!”
“Taxes to what end? They take and they take and they hoard it all for themselves, paying nothing back to the people. Tell me, why did they send you alone to slay me?”
Roderick hesitated. “I volunteered for this quest!”
“What does it pay?” the dragon asked. “The acquisition of my red hide?”
“Pay? No, no, I would accept no coin, I accepted the quest for honour! At the-, strong suggestion of my liege.”
“Your liege could have amassed an army, and marched them to the very mouth of my cave.” The Red Menace’s forked tongue flicked between its teeth. “But armies are expensive, heroes are cheap. Honour is cheap. Armies require uniforms and weapons and food and payment. You alone cost him nothing in overheads. You’re a contractor. And if you fail, your king can always send another, and another.”
Roderick’s plate felt heavy. His muscles quaked and his broadsword slowly slipped until the blade was drooping toward the ground. With a sudden surge of strength, however, he raised the weapon again.
“If you are so concerned, why do you hoard all these riches here for yourself? Why don’t you give it back to the people?”
“Your king and his lords, they pay their guards in coin, do they not? But what happens when their coin runs out and there are no more guards? No more honour and no more heroes either? What happens when the proletariat have been taxed beyond what they can give, and go hungry, and they realise there are more of them than there are kings and lords?”
“What? What happens?”
“You cannot eat gold, and you cannot shelter under titles. By removing their treasures, I expose the inherent lie at the centre of the system of exploitation they have built around themselves. If I were to return the riches to them they would be taxed and stolen again, perpetuating the belief in its worth. But when all things are equal, the peasantry will see that the only real value is in the labour provided by the farmers and builders and smiths. Everything else is merely what you’ve been taught as a means of serving the very few on top. They will seize the means of production for themselves and eliminate those rich parasites. That’s why they send you to my door.”
“Well, that and the princess.”
“Ah, yes, the princess.”
“Where is she?”
“I’m afraid I already ate her. All the rich are good for, really.”
Sir Roderick slouched in disappointment. The point of his sword fell to the dirt and gold at his feet. Fire glowed in the dragon’s belly and its teeth gleamed, but it did nothing to attack. In spite of the dragon’s monstrous appearance, Roderick started to wonder whether they had more in common with one another than he had in common with his king and the other nobles who ruled his kingdom.
“Tell me more of your ways, demon.”
Soon, Roderick returned to his charger outside the dragon’s cave. The horse grazed on an unburnt patch of grass. Mounting the saddle, he spurred the animal down the slope the way they had come. His sword, back in its sheath, remained unbloodied.
When Roderick reached the castle, he was immediately ushered inside. Escorted to the throne room, he found King Owain surrounded by members of his court. Seated on the throne in all his finery, crown too large for his head, for a moment Owain looked surprised to see Roderick but he quickly recovered.
“What news have you brought me of the dragon and my gold?” The king asked. “And the princess, of course.”
Roderick walked slowly to the throne, plate clicking with each step. His hand rested on the pommel of his sword. Then, with a hiss, he released the weapon from its scabbard. A practised lunge, he planted the tip of the sword into King Owain’s chest. The monarch looked stunned as Roderick’s blade ran him through. Blood stained his finery. Roderick pushed his sword all the way into the king’s body and pinned him to the throne. Everyone else in the room, nobles and guards, were too shocked to react.
“Thus always to tyrants!” Roderick bellowed to the stunned court.
King Owain had called the Red Menace the greatest threat his kingdom faced.
He was right.
Sean: This is not even the first time I’ve used a human-eating, fairytale monster to basically extoll the values of filthy, filthy communism. Yes, of all the chromatic dragons that Dungeons and Dragons has to offer, there’s a reason this story was inspired by the RED Dragon.
I remember being kind of a dragon purist as a kid, and strongly preferred my dragons to look like the ones in this story. Large, fire breathing, with four legs and wings. Also not a coincidence that the draconic creatures in three of the five stories I’ve done for Dractoberfest have red scales. Wyverns turned me right off for some reason, but I’ve softened a lot on that over the years and I think these days I actually prefer the wyvern design. But there is something about the four legs and wings design that just says classical dragon to me. I must have been willing to make some exceptions though because I remember absolutely loving the designs in ‘The Discovery of Dragons’ by Graeme Base.
Next week is the last week of Dractoberfest! Hopefully I’ve saved the best of last, I suppose that’s a matter of taste, but I think I’ve saved the most straightforward dragon story for last? It is a long one, with plenty of fire breathing action!
Next Week’s Inspiration: Ancient Gold Dragon