Where the beast had come from we knew not. Some say from the very bowels of the earth. Others say from the smoldering rock that fell from the heavens. Others say it was an aberration of nature or the leviathan mentioned by Job. We the bereaved say it does not matter.
Whatever its origin, it left destruction in its wake. Like no other beasts before, its very breath disgorged fire. Like no other beast before it, our arrows, javelins and swords proved useless. Many a knight tried in vain to spear its underbelly or mortally wound it through one of its reptilian eyes. But none had been granted the distance. Cunningly it would not stand still for a frontal assault but slithered away in the mist or the darkness. Bided its time and then struck as if from nowhere, leaving behind the smoldering remains of its handiwork.
We the survivors, many of us bearing the grotesque scars of the conflagration, had vowed before our family graves, beneath the weeping heavens to bring this blasphemous monstrosity to the dust or to die trying. We had sealed the vow with a fiery branding so that we might never forget our promise to those made ashes by its sulfurous, malevolent breath. Not many had survived. But we were determined with a purpose etched deeply into our consciousness with the branding iron of cruelty and mindless slaughter.
After ten years of desperate tracking, we were finally nearing our goal. We had followed the swath of destruction which always marked its passage. Now finally, the great beast seemed to grow weary. Its evasions were not as quick. Its retreats were not as elusive. Even the dragged imprint of its clawed paws told of its age.
We beheld the smoke in the far horizon and spurred our steeds into a gallop. Soon the castle's granite, gray towers loomed through the morning mist like two gargantuan sentinels. Windows resembled smoldering grottoes, lightless and scorched black at the edges. Below each one, rusted spears serving as flagpoles with tattered, bloodstained, white flags jutting vertically barely fluttered in the stagnant air.
We crossed the singed meadow and were soon before the castle ramparts. The gate's metal grating had been melted and forced aside as if by a battering ram. Its center a charred gaping maw as if in a horrified scream. The castle's battlements faired no better. Catapults had been brushed aside effortlessly, many toppling over the edges onto the courtyards below. The stench of death and sulfur infused the air. We gazed in horrified silence at the half-incinerated remains of warriors scattered about. Some had charred arms upraised as if to ward off an attack. Others stood smoldering as if ebony statues with swords still clenched in stubborn defiance.
Hooves of our steeds echoed in the deep silence of the narrow street leading to the palace. We found its solid oaken door intact. We shouted repeatedly and awaited a response but no one answered. The castle had been abandoned in panic. It was strange how the beast had spared it as well as the Cathedral across from it. We wondered whether it could still hurl fire. We knew it had aged as all things do and that age brings limitations.
Mighty Baldegar, a giant of a man, had lost his ability to hurl his battle ax the same distance with the same accuracy. Erik, a veritable Hercules, could no longer place his spear through a hoop at three hundred feet. I myself could no longer wield the broadsword with the same dexterity. This beast would be no different. Perhaps its bellow-like lungs had finally given out during this battle and it could no longer light its infernal flames. Perhaps its own fire had begun to irritate its aged throat. Or maybe a catapulted boulder had seriously injured it. Whatever the reason, mercy was not it.
We tethered our nervous steeds to the balustrade and proceeded inside the castle. A thin film of black ash blown in by the wind covered its once-glittering white-marbled floors and its once- magnificent gilded throne. In the musty semi-darkness were outlines of the dead brought here to die of their mortal wounds. Nothing remained for us but the mourning. But lamentations would never restore the dead.
Hatred raged as it had never raged before as painful memories were revived. Once again we recited the solemn oath to destroy it or die trying, to seek it out wherever it might be. We would hound it until it turned in anger upon us and slay it mercilessly as it had slayed us all. In the gloom of the castle we renewed the oath and waited for its return.
Soon it was dusk and deep shadows began casting brooding forms on the narrow bloodied streets. Somewhere in the distance an owl sounded its questioning call and our tethered steeds neighed nervously. As if in response, there followed a deep roar from the nearby forest.
"It approaches the gate from the north east!" our sentry fearfully announced.. Distant trees snapped like twigs as it lumbered toward the castle like some monstrous feline. Each step was accompanied by grotesque grunt similar to a bull's but a thousand times louder. Then there followed the slow, painfully- loud creaking of the castle ramparts’ wooden frame struggling to bear the weight of a beast weighing more than ten elephants filled the night.
As slow as it was moving, it would be upon us soon enough with the same unrelenting fury it had been upon those who had defended the castle hours before. If catapults and the combined might of all the castle's armory had failed, then how could we hope to succeed? I brooded in silence hiding my concern from the others.
The sound of its approach changed from creaking wood to claws on cobbled stones and its breathing reverberated through the deserted streets and alleyways. It was taking its time, savoring the fear it was sensing. Sniffing the air with its cavernous nostril's each wide enough to enclose a horse. Its tree-trunk-thick tail following its reptilian form sinuously-like a giant monstrous python, its eyes glowing red in the darkness as if reflecting some preternatural inner fire that embodied a heinous soul.
We stood before the palace entrance waiting with weapons poised, expecting the oaken door would burst into livid sulfurous flame, topple or crumble under the dragon's ponderous weight crushing all before it. Cautiously we stood beyond its reach with archers at each side. All weapons would be trained on its eyes, for if we blinded it, then killing it would be easier. Yet it had survived the full brunt of the castle’s weaponry uninjured. Surely a spear or a massive catapulted projectile must have struck its mark. Surely something had to have found its target. Yet it appeared unhurt, lithe and confident, its shield-like green scales glistening undamaged under the waxing moonlight.
If we fled It would hurl its flames in broad swathes incinerating all before it. Our only chance was to fight it and so we stood with swords unsheathed, lances at ready, archers poised to deliver what we hoped would be a fatal wound before it had time to react.
Outside, our steeds began neighing in terror, broke loose from their reins and galloped down the deserted narrow street-the sound of their iron-clad hooves resonating as they went.
We waited for the rasping gasp of inhalation from the bellow-like lungs and the blast furnace-like roar that always followed, but there was none. Strangely, the steeds were being allowed safe passage. In the distance, the sound of their flight gradually faded as they swiftly crossed the castle rampart and headed toward the forest beyond.
Weird that it had not incinerated them. An act of kindness from that hideous mind was impossible. The beast had proven far from merciful. Women, children, the aged, it had spared no one. No, there had to be another reason but compassion was not one of them. Suddenly, as if in response to our confusion, it howled near the Castle door. Strange how its breathing seemed erratic and labored. We thought it a ruse. So we waited. Sweat-drenched and weary, we waited while it bellowed. Soon it seemed as if a dirge, some lamentation provoked by a revealed secret or painful knowledge. The sun disappeared below the distant mountain range and the beast continued to shatter the night's silence with its bellows causing the castle rafters to quiver, but no attack came.
Slowly, after what seemed an eternity, morning's light illuminated the castle windows. Distantly the birds sang. From the castle watchtower our sentry signaled that the beast was not moving. Still we hesitated. Once when cornered, it had feigned death only to arise when the knights had dismounted.
Then it had suddenly disgorged destruction on both horse and rider. Armor melted and men were roasted alive where they stood. It had easily overtaken the fleeing, toying with them as a large cat toys with its smaller prey before killing it. But its toying was far more hideous. It would immerse them in a flame that left them alive but writhing in agonies only reserved for the damned. Only after it had satisfied the needs of its dark heart did it deign to put an end to their suffering. No, the beast might still be dangerous so I ordered my archers to make sure.
Volleys of arrows from upper windows failed to penetrate its armor. But the ones entering its cavernous nose would have infuriated a living beast.. Yet it was with fear that we opened the castle door and approached its tilted head propped against the cathedral steps. Its black, eagle-like claws were clenched and its elongated crimson eyes inert.
Rising from its back, as if hurled by some unearthly titan, protruded the church steeple which had toppled from its lofty perch and speared the leviathan. Solemnly we all knelt and fervently gave thanks for our deliverance. But suddenly, in the far distance beyond the forest, another roar bellowed in furious protest and we knew that our sacred task had as yet remained unfinished.