by Monty St John
Macsen slapped at another mosquito, squishing it firmly then wiping away the gore with a silk handkerchief in disgust. His nose wrinkled at the constant buzz and stench of the place, and he did his best to hunker down further in the overcoat. It was a battle trying to expose as little of his skin as possible to the hungry little beasts. A losing battle he continued to fight every day in this hellish fen. Movement in the trees caught his eye and the mosquitoes and bugs were forgotten in an instant. Tensing in anticipation, Macsen sunk further into his hiding place, contriving to look even more a part of the environment than ever.
“Finally,” he thought and bared teeth in a humorless grin. “The great beast moves.” The thick clump of mangroves he had watched with mounting exasperation as the days crawled, slowly bowed as if some great weight was pressing them down. The calmness of his demeanor belied the anxious chaos springing beneath. The water surrounding the small island of trees and rock rippled and displaced mightily, as if something large entered it. Macsen watched the signs of its movement, hungrily devouring every trace that it was stirring to leave its lair. In his mind an invocation played over and over, calling to it. “ Come, Xixilactu, leave your lair—depart for your meal! I know you must hunger, your belly burn and cry to be assuaged!”
The water quieted in short order and seemed still, but Macsen had watched and learned Xixilactu’s habits well. Time dragged by in torturous intervals but still Macsen waited, unmoving until his keen eyes took in the slow, faint undulation of something large moving away underwater. Macsen let out the breath he had been holding, watching the slowly moving away ripples. To stay composed he began mentally running down a checklist of needed magic, trembling in excitement now that the time had arrived to act. Only the sheerest strength of will curbed his urge to immediately call spells and pierce its lair. “I must wait,” he whispered to himself, eyes intent on the traces of its departure in the water. “Caution means everything, especially now, when the moment is nigh”. It was agonizing but he waited longer still after all traces of its presence eluded his keen eyes or passive magic. Satisfied it was truly gone, he acted with sure decision and shaking excitement.
Ignoring the bite of the mosquitoes, Macsen tossed aside the overcoat and called forth his spells, quickly conjuring an ablative coat of air, heaving a sigh of relief as it forced away the pesky insects that had been bugging him through the long two months at this hellhole. He paid less attention to the rest, quickly calling forth magic to allow him to speed across the surface of the water and sight to pierce the most hidden of veils.
Macsen’s sprint across the water would have done any footpad in the Talismonde street games proud. When he reached the island, Macsen though his chest would burst from the exertion. Looking around to make sure his dash was undetected, he sucked in a ten count of breaths then forced himself to go on, not daring to take more time to recover lest Xixilactu or something equally dire in this bog come upon him. The lightness of step helped with the ascent, allowing him to almost run up the rocks and trees. So well that Macsen was at the mouth of the lair ahead of schedule. It was a moment to revel in, staring at mangrove-draped rock mouth of its lair and knowing he would soon have the Fractal Bolt in his hands. A gem like no other, its rumored properties ranged wide but it was the price tag whose improbable value intrigued him. This gem made the Heart of Boreas seem like a cheap bauble.
Kicking himself into motion, Macsen moved in, treading lightly and carefully, but quickly down the winding tunnel. Prior research fared him well and allowed careful, but easy bypass of the traps Xixilactu had prepared for would-be thieves. The last obstacle was still a surprise and Macsen cursed Xixilactu for taking to expelling its acidic expectorant in the junction of the tunnel and main chamber. An application of carefully hoarded magic empowered his legs to leap across the arid smelling pool. It was a hard landing with a more than a bit of sliding and a closer view of the arid stuff than he wanted or desired.
Wrenching away from the close call an acid bath, Macsen scanned the steepled cavernous lair, taking a moment to revel in the sharp rush of triumph at piercing the Dragon’s lair. Ignoring the haphazardly tossed riches, Macsen searched for the Fractal Bolt in the spread treasure, kicking away lesser gems and coins; refusing to even bother with obviously magical artifacts in the quest to discover its hiding place. “Where is it,” he thought, “I know Xixilactu has Fractal Bolt. Where has it hidden the stone?”
His unvoiced questions found an answer, a deep-belly laugh not made by man and Macsen spun about, heart leaping into his throat. The eyes were the first things in view and they threatened to swallow him in their unblinking gaze. Macsen was numbed by their weight, held fast, even as fear flooded limbs and mind with urgency.
Heard more than seen, its movement was a whispering of coils sliding across scales and the red split-pupil eyes dilated as it spoke. “Did you think I could not feel your presence outside my lair? Your desire for my riches stunk the air with a foul odor even the lowest dragon could smell, human.”
Macsen’s mind tumbled, looking for any chance, any hope of survival. Hissing gurgled out of its throat and he trembled, mind latching onto one possibility even as it spoke. “Something taken your tongue, human,” It asked, baring rows of acid pitted fangs. “Perhaps it is just that you require sufficient motivation!”
It reared back, head arching, mouth gaping to expel a gout of acidic expectorate and Macsen seize the single chance of victory there was and screamed. The power of the spell burned his throat with bile but the wail was a dirge with banshee power, thrashing even Xixilactu, who recoiled from the sonorous sound. Macsen watched with dumbfounded awe as it reared up and slammed into the hanging stalactites, bringing a rain of stone down on top of it.
“I am alive,” he thought with amazement and stumbled away, turning to run. Macsen made it two steps when its tail snapped around and the stinger pierced his thigh. He screamed as the venom pumped in and Xixilactu threw another coil around him while propelling its bulk out of the debris. Macsen struggled to breath, squeezed in the growing number of coils enveloping his body.
Its eyes came into view, one dimmed slightly and oozing fluid. Xixilactu opened its jaws, expelling a sibilant hiss that ground his bones to jelly. The open maw revealed to Macsen the object of his quest. The Fractal Bolt lay embedded in place of one of its fangs, something he noted with absentminded horror as Xixilactu struck with serpentine precision and snuffed out his life.