Hours before Jenelle Schmidt’s Drachtober spooky short story challenge was set to expire, I remembered that I hadn’t written an entry yet.
At first, I thought, “Oh well, I’ll do it next year.”
Then I remembered that I am Kyle Robert Shultz.
So this happened. *wipes sweat from brow* Whew. There may be typos, but hey, it was fun.
Malcolm Blackfire and the Haunted Hoard
The Republic of Grimmany
The Bloodrock Mountains
Let’s face it–dragons are better than humans. We’re bigger and stronger, obviously. We look better, even when we’re in human form. (We’re better at being humans than humans are.) And we can breathe fire, which pretty much trumps anything that any other species can throw at us.
Consequently, when we die, we make better ghosts.
I say ‘better.’ What I actually mean is more powerful and dangerous, which doesn’t exactly seem ‘better’ when you’re on the receiving end of a dragon haunting.
Dragons don’t die often, you see. And when they do, they’re really not happy about it.
The thing that rankles dead dragons the most is leaving all that lovely gold behind. Whoever came up with the phrase “you can’t take it with you” was probably eaten by a very annoyed dragon shortly afterward. We spend millennia gathering our hoards. We don’t like to think of robbers or treasure hunters or archaeologists fooling about with them after we’ve gone to the great beyond.
Being a dragon myself, I can of course understand this. But I’m also an archaeologist. Which means that it sometimes falls on me to dig up the hoards of my fellow, dearly-departed fire-breathers.
Usually this sort of thing passes without incident, except for the rare occasions when the dead dragon in question isn’t actually dead but just taking a two- or three-century nap. Things get awkward really fast then. But I was reasonably certain that the hoard of Infiurnus the Indomitable was unoccupied. I knew he was dead, after all. I killed him myself.
“Why’d you do it, then?” asked my apprentice, the notorious jewel thief Melody Nightingale. She was holding a lantern aloft to guide our way as we wove through the dark passages under the Bloodrock Mountains. Water dripped off stalactites overhead and splashed into puddles on the floor.
“Why did I do what?” I glared down at a puddle I’d just stepped in. My socks were soaked through. I hate wet socks. I considered blasting some fire at them to dry them off, but it occurred to me that this might be overdoing it.
“Why’d you kill ‘im?” asked Melody, brushing a lock of her dark hair back from her face. “Did he steal your girlfriend, or summat?”
I gave her an imperious glare–not much good, of course, given that it was dark and her back was turned to me. “It wasn’t anything so trivial. Male dragons don’t duel over female dragons.” I hesitated. “Well, except for that one time when one of my friends killed a romantic rival, but that wasn’t so much a duel as a lunch.”
“Ugh.” Melody curled her lip.
“In any event, I didn’t mean to kill Infiurnus. He was insane. Back in the fourth century, he rampaged across the Afterlands setting villages on fire and burning crops right and left.”
“That sounds fairly sane for dragons,” Melody pointed out.
“Not when all the other dragons have just negotiated a very delicate peace treaty with the humans. He would have had the entire Council of Scions after us if I hadn’t stopped him. Like I said, killing him wasn’t my intention. I wanted to knock him out so he could be safely locked in human form and imprisoned.” I sighed. “But he just wouldn’t yield, and in the end, it was either him or me.”
“Sorry,” said Melody. “Were you friends before?”
“Not really. Never liked the chap, as a matter of fact. But the death of a dragon is always a solemn thing. It’s the destruction of something ancient and beautiful that can never be recreated. Like a priceless painting.”
Melody glanced at me, her eyes bright. “D’you think there’ll be any paintings in this hoard? Mostly gold, I’ll wager, but some paintings would be nice as well.”
I rolled my eyes. “It always gets back to money with you, doesn’t it?”
“Oi!” she retorted. “You’re the dragon here, remember? Mr. Gold-Collector?”
“Yes, but for me, it’s about treasure,” I reminded her. “It’s about the distinctions of amassing an impressive collection of valuable objects. Nothing so crass as money.” “Wait,” said Melody, as she came to an abrupt halt and nearly caused me to bump into her from behind. “Is that it up ahead?”
I looked over her shoulder. The tunnel came to an end a few yards in front of us, and beyond it, I could see a vast cavern. The lantern light went just far enough to glitter off something in the distance.
“Presumably,” I replied. “What else would it be?”
Melody frowned. “But why isn’t there a door? YOu know, with puzzles and things to prevent the unworthy from getting in? Maybe a trapdoor that sends you into a pit full of spikes if you get the wrong answer?”
I sighed and took the lantern from her. “Melody, it’s a dragon’s hoard. When the dragon was alive, he didn’t need to set up ridiculous puzzles. THe worthy ended up just as flambeed as the unworthy.” I stepped in front of her and headed towards the cavern. “Come on, then. Step lively.”
“Who knew dragons were so bossy?” Melody muttered under her breath.
We stepped carefully into the cavern. THe lantern’s poor light did little to help us see the treasures before us. I caught a glimpse of a pile of gold coins and a few statues, but I couldn’t see much beyond that.
“I wish we had more light,” said Melody.
“No wishing,” I warned her. “Might be a djinn lurking around a place like this. Saying that sort of thing is a good way to get yourself turned into a firefly or something.” I glanced up at the ceiling. “Fortunately, your thingummy is my command. Looks as if there’s a lantern up there.”
“We’ve got a lantern already.”
“A dragon lantern,” I clarified. I drew in my breath and blasted a long stream of flames up toward the dark, disc-like shape I’d noticed suspended near the cavern ceiling. The fire set it ablaze, and soon, the whole place was filled with light.
“Crumpets,” Melody breathed, her eyes wide.
“Not quite the word I’d choose, but yes, it is breathtaking.” I set down the now-unnecessary lantern and took in the scenery. There were piles of gold, jewels, and artifacts around us for as far as the eye could see. Naturally, being doolally, Infiurnus hadn’t been much of a lad for cataloguing. It pained me to see Gothylvanian blood diamonds filed right alongside Anansican death masks.
“So pretty…” Melody had gone into a sort of trance–her usual reaction when confronted with valuable objects. She scooped up a handful of sapphires and let them trickle through her fingers as she sighed in contentment.
I cleared my throat. “Remember, we’re only here for one thing.”
“I know, I know.” She gave me a reproachful look. “Can’t we take just a little of this?”
“Best not,” I advised. “There could be all sorts of nasty curses on this stuff. It’d take weeks to make sure it was safe to remove from the cave.”
“Drat.” Melody pouted.
“Now,” I said, “let’s find the Helm of Terror and get out of here.”
“RIght. What’s that one do again? We’ve gone after so many artifacts lately, I’m starting to get mixed up.”
I shrugged. “It’s what it says on the tin. It’s a helmet that scares people. Find a helmet that gives you the willies, and voila.”
“RIghty-ho.” Melody started off down the paths between the mounds of gold. “Let’s split up; we’ll cover more ground.”
I chuckled under my breath. “If I had a farthing for every time I heard a band of dragonslayers say that–”
“What?” Melody called back.
“Nothing! Nothing.” I started my own search. The Helm probably wouldn’t have much effect on me, but I’d still be able to notice its powers.
Roughly fifteen minutes went by without either of us finding anything, though Melody perpetually getting distracted by all the other shiny things didn’t help. Then, abruptly, the light overhead went out.
“Would you mind firing that up again, Malcolm?” Melody shouted from far off. “I can’t see a thing!”
“It shouldn’t have died like that,” I replied.
“I don’t really care what it should have done!” said Melody. “Could you just light it again, please?”
I understood her viewpoint, but I was still worried. Those lanterns were designed to burn for years, if necessary. It didn’t make sense that the flame had just gone out by itself.
That was when it started to get cold. Very cold. So much so that when I tried to blast fire at the lantern again, I found that nothing came out of my throat except a few sparks. By their light, I saw clouds of vapor streaming from my mouth, condensing in the chilly air.
“Hurry up!” said Melody. “It’s dark in here! And it’s getting cold, too!”
“I’ve noticed!” I shouted back. “Unfortunately, I–ah–don’t seem to be having much luck in the fire-breathing department.” It was incredibly embarrassing to admit that.
Melody was not pleased. “What?” she cried. “This is no time for you to get a frog in your throat, Malcolm!”
“Fairly certain it’s more complicated than that, but yes, I take your point. STill, I don’t really have a solution.”
“Well, at least you managed to shapeshift back into dragon form,” said Melody. “maybe now you can–”
“What?” I peered through the darkness in the direction of her voice. “Melody, I’m still human. I didn’t shapeshift.”
There was a long silence. “Than what’s this dragon doing over here?” Melody finally asked. Her voice quavered.
My heart pounded. “Melody, run!” I tried to change into a dragon, but the cold seemed to have seeped into my very bones. I could feel my connection to the Dragonflame growing weaker. To a dragon, that’s pretty much the most terrifying thing imaginable.
There was an explosion of blue light that made me shade my eyes. When my vision cleared, I saw a huge, ethereal dragon formed from cold sapphire light. Its eyes were emotionless, shining orbs, and its face looked like a dragon’s skull rather than the features of a living dragon. By the light streaming from its body, I could see Melody running toward me as fast as her legs could carry her.
The ghost dragon turned its horrible gaze on me. “Malchazor,” it hissed. Even its voice sounded corpse-like. “You…murdered…me.”
“Well, there’s a conversation starter,” I muttered, as Melody joined me.
“Did you know there’d be a ghost in this place?” she demanded angrily.
“Yes,” I said. “The whole trip was planned specifically so I could introduce you to the spectre of an old enemy.”
“No, of course, I didn’t know!” I shot back. “I knew there could be a ghost, but that sort of thing is very rare.”
“Not rare enough, if you ask me!” said Melody.
Infiurnus opened his mouth and shot blue fire at us. No, not blue fire…ice. I ducked with Melody just in time, as a blizzard shot over our heads. I’d heard about dragon ghosts doing this. Cut off from the Dragonflame in death, they became avatars of its opposite–the Coldfire. Most dragons considered it a myth, but clearly they were wrong.
As soon as it was safe to stand up again, Melody and I took off running through the hoard. “What do we do now?” she panted.
“The plan hasn’t changed,” I told her. “We find the Helm of Terror. That should get rid of Infiurnus.”
“And if it doesn’t?”
“We’ll die. So let’s hope that it does, eh?” I pointed to the treasure all around us. “Concentrate! Look for what scares you!”
“Malcolm, we’re being chased by a ghost dragon that breathes blizzards! I really don’t think anything’s going to scare me more than OH MY GOD THAT THING IS HORRIFYING.”
She skidded to a stop and shoved me in front of her. “Never mind,” she squeaked. “That’s a lot scarier. I’ll take dragon ghosts over that any day.”
I looked at the helmet lying on the ground in front of us–then quickly looked away. “Ah, yes. There it is.”
Melody gaped at me. “It doesn’t scare you? Honestly?”
“No.” Without actually looking at the helmet, I picked it up and slid it over my face. “Wish me luck,” I told Melody, my voice muffled by the metal.
She threw up an arm in front of her face and squeezed her eyes shut. “Don’t look at me while you’re wearing that thing!”
“Sorry.” I turned my attention to Infiurnus. “Ha!” I shouted at him. “Have a taste of this, blizzard-breath!”
I stared directly into his eyes. He met my gaze–and kept coming. The Helm didn’t seem to be having the slightest effect on him.
“I don’t understand,” I exclaimed. “Why isn’t it working?”
“It’s not scary from the back, oddly enough,” said Melody. “And oh–there’s an inscription on the metal here that says something like ‘This helmet only works on the living.'”
I threw up my hands. “Of course! Small print! Every time!”
“Does this mean we’re going to die?”
The dragon ghost loomed over us, his skeletal grin widening in triumph. I knew he was getting ready to freeze both of us into ice blocks.
“No,” I said. “We’re not. But I’m going to lose something a lot more precious to me than my life.” I slid the helmet off and pulled Melody behind a nearby suit of orc armor.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“My dignity.” I handed her the helmet, being careful to keep the face turned away from her. “Put this on and look at me.”
She frowned. “I thought you said it didn’t work on you?”
I made a slight grimace. “I lied.”
“You want me to scare you, then? Why?”
“Because I’m hoping it will counteract whatever that ghost is using to keep me from shapeshifting.” I drew in a deep breath. “So go ahead. Do it.”
“If you’re sure.” Melody slipped on the helmet and turned its horrible face toward me.
I don’t even remember what the thing actually looked like. I couldn’t even see the details, or Melody’s eyes behind the visor. All I could see was every single thing I’d ever been afraid of–and there were a lot more than the average person might have expected.
My mother’s death.
My son’s betrayal.
The Neverwolves descending on me in a swarm, trying to tear me apart and erase my existence.
Ragnarok, the apocalypse Melody and I were trying to prevent by gathering these artifacts.
Jormungandr, the unstoppable dragon that the Knights of Ouroboros were trying to summon.
But the one scene that flashed through my mind over and over again was Melody’s death, taking place in dozens of ways. Every time, it was because I’d failed to save her.
“Malcolm!” I heard her voice and felt her shaking my shoulder. “Malcolm! Are you all right?”
I was lying curled up in the fetal position on a pile of gold. My heart was pounding so hard that I could barely hear anything over the roar of blood in my ears. Trembling, I sat up and tried to calm myself.
That was when I noticed that the chill had faded from my bones.
“I’m back,” I whispered.
Melody clapped her hands. “Lovely! Could you please hurry, though?” She pointed up at Infiurnus, who was reading another blast of ice.
Fire exploded around me as the cavern seemed to shrink. Scales spread across my body, and my wings unfurled. I dug my claws into the treasure underfoot and pushed off, rising into the air.
“Ice versus fire,” I hissed at Infiurnus. “I think I already know which one will win.”
He shrieked in fury and sent a torrent of snow hurtling toward me.
I melted it–and him–with a single breath. His form blurred and dissolved as he screamed in pain and anger. The enormous spectre flickered for a moment, then finally vanished.
“Yes!” Melody punched the air. “Well done, you!”
I laughed as I shifted back into my human form. “Quite impressive, if I do say so myself.”
“Do you think he’ll be back?” Melody cast an apprehensive glance at the spot where Infiurnus’ ghost had just been.
“Difficult to say for sure. I wouldn’t be surprised if he did show up again.” I picked up a small wooden chest lying on the ground nearby, dumped a cascade of doubloons out of it, and placed the Helm of Terror inside. “We don’t need to worry, though. We’ll be long gone.”
Melody was looking at me with concern. “Are you sure you’re all right? The helmet–”
“I’m fine,” I said quickly. “I’m over it now. Don’t worry.”
She glanced at the chest. “It started to show me things when I first looked at it. Memories that frightened me. Even things I was afraid might happen but weren’t actually real.” She looked into my eyes. “What did you see?”
“A world without gold,” I said.
She shuddered. “Now, that is scary.”