Even a dragonsteel bullet would barely fracture dragon scales, but if you happened to chance upon a chink in a dragon’s armor- a place where a scale had fallen loose- a dragonsteel bullet would bite deep, ripping through the hide and flesh and organs until eventually running into bone where it would stop. Dragonsteel bullets seldom broke through bone, though it wasn’t impossible since dragonsteel was iron fortified with dragon bone, but by the time the bullet got near enough to bone, the velocity was often too slow to do much more damage. A single bullet wouldn’t be fatal to a dragon, unless of course the chink in the armor was on the skull and the hide underneath led to the brain.
“Now, Kesirine, I pray you aren’t thinking about wasting one of my bullets on an already slain dragon.”
Kesirine lowered her pistol away from the bare space on the dragon’s skull where the scale had come loose. It would be a clean shot.
“You always told me to confirm the kill,” Kesirine called back to her father, Masew, but she could not see him from her current vantage point high up between the pointed horns of the dragon’s brow, at least fifty feet up from the ground.
“And you’re right to listen to me,” Masew said, coming into view on the ground, a handful of scales in his arms. “But I’ve already confirmed this one’s dead.”
“How?” Kesirine asked, walking off the skull and down the spine between the dragon’s leathery wings. She hadn’t seen a single entry wound or more than a few misplaced scales. It could have just been sleeping for all they knew.
“Come on down and I’ll show you,” Masew yelled to her, and Kesirine climbed down from the dragon, hands and feet finding holds amid the scales.
The dragon had landed nose first in the ground, it’s snout buried a few feet in the dirt and it created a hollow between the dragon’s throat and the ground, big enough to fit a man.
“There,” Masew said, pointing with his staff towards the space underneath the neck. “Rats are having a good meal. You can go look for yourself if you don’t believe me.”
Kesirine couldn’t see what her father was pointing to she went to the dragon’s maw, half certain that it would open and take her into its mouth to tear her limb from limb, but this dragon was dead. When she looked underneath into the hollow by the dragon’s throat, she saw where the scales had been ripped away from the skin and where rats had begun to eat away at the flesh, black and rotting and bloody. It hadn’t smelled on top the dragon, but here it did and Kesirine had to leave before she retched up her breakfast.
“There’s no way you could have seen that coming up the hill,” she said to her father when they regrouped with their vehicle. “I couldn’t even see it until I looked underneath.”
“I saw the rats,” Masew explained. “A whole lot of them were running towards the carcass, and I knew that no living dragon would let that many get at him.”
Kesirine wasn’t happy with that answer. “You made an assumption, an assumption that could have gotten us killed.”
Masew looked almost amused at his daughter’s scolding. “There aren’t many dragons anymore, my dear, and most of them are too old to fly anymore.”
“Most,” Kesirine muttered.
“We could have killed the beast if we had to,” Masew said, throwing his load of dragon scales into the vehicle, pulling the pack from his daughter so he could put hers back there too. “We were prepared.”
“It was careless,” Kesirine argued.
“We wouldn’t have even been allowed up the hill if it were alive,” Masew said. “He would’ve warned us away first. They always warn.”
She frowned. “A warning could be a breath of fire.”
Masew laughed at her and it made her even more irritated. “You want to be a dragonslayer but a dragonslayer isn’t a hero anymore,” her father remarked, getting into the driver’s seat.
“I will one day,” Kesirine pouted as she got into the passenger’s side. “I’ll kill one myself and they’ll write stories about me.”
Masew laughed again. “You’ll put your sword through a little wyrm and you’ll start writing Kesirine the Slayer on your homework.”
“Don’t make fun of me,” Kesirine said, drawing her hood over her head to drown out her father’s badgering.
“You take yourself too seriously, Kes,” Masew said. “Maybe they’ll come a day when you’re standing at the feet of the last dragon in the world and you won’t be able to bring yourself to kill the last of a kind.”
“They’re a menace,” she said, tossing back her hood to argue.
“They’re our livelihood,” Masew countered, and he didn’t have to mention the scales in the back, but Kesirine knew he meant them. “It’s a balance.”
“The world would be better without them.”
Masew sighed, knowing he would get nowhere with his daughter today. He thought about lecturing her about the importance of the dragons and how there were a great deal many things that were worse in the world, but Kesirine was young and headstrong, drunk on the stories of her ancestors. Dragonslaying used to be the stuff of songs; now it was the stuff of business.
The three-hour drive back into town was quiet as Kesirine sulked in her seat while Masew guided the vehicle down the hill with their heavy load. If time permitted, he’d like to make another trip back up the hill this afternoon since it wouldn’t be much longer before the more serious collectors and predators started hanging around the dragon corpse. Masew was not a greedy man, and the dragon scales would provide enough money to last his family a long time, but it wouldn’t hurt to try to fit in another trip and stow some extra funds away. Kesirine had gotten it into her head that she would go off with the Swords next fall; Masew and her mother Larine would sooner send her off to the college if they had the money. Their daughter would still get herself into trouble there- that much was certain- but at least she would be a little bit more confined.
Masew knew something was wrong the moment he pulled into town. The streets were filled with carts of fruit and meat and other goods and the shop lights were all on, but there was no one tending them. He pulled the vehicle up outside his home and told Kesirine to take the scales inside and see if Larine was home while he went to see what was going on. Kesirine did as she was told, but she was running after him within a few minutes, her long young legs catching up to him without effort.
“Mama isn’t inside,” Kesirine said once she had caught up with her father. Even the dog was gone.
“I gather she’s with everyone else, wherever they are,” her father remarked.
“What’s going on?” she asked as they ran through empty streets in search of a single face, including Larine’s.
Masew stopped in his tracks, the sound of shouting voices coming over on the wind.
“Let’s follow the voices,” Masew said and they ran down more empty streets until they started spotting the stragglers, all hanging back from a crowd that had gathered by the hospital.
“What’s happening?” Kesirine asked one of the women that had decided to hang back.
“Don’t know,” the woman said, clutching her shawl tight around her. “I heard a lot of yelling and then people started running that way.” She pointed at the hospital. “I wouldn’t go up that way if I were you.”
“Why not?” Masew asked the woman.
“Don’t know,” she said again. “I’m just sure there’s not something that anyone would ever want to see up there.”
That was enough to pique Kesirine’s interest and she was bolting down the cobbled streets towards the hospital, her father struggling to keep up behind her. The crowds were thickening and it seemed like everyone in town was out of their homes and away from their livelihoods, all gathered in front of the hospital.
“What’s going on?” Kesirine asked another stranger.
“Someone said it’s the dead,” the stranger said. “I haven’t seen anything yet, but they say it’s the dead.”
“The dead what?” Kesirine pressed but the stranger was melting away into the crowd as more people pushed to get a look.
Kesirine looked behind her to see how far behind Masew was, and she couldn’t see him at all. She knew she should go back and look for her father, but she needed to know what had pulled everyone up here. She crouched down to see through the mess of legs in front of her, trying to find a clear path to the front. She waited for the people to shift just enough so that she could slip into the row in front of her and then she did it again and again until she got herself to the front.
She didn’t get to spend very long in the front row before she was pushed back by guards, watchmen asking everyone to return to their homes so that a proper investigation could be made, but no one was listening. Kesirine went back a few rows as the crowd tried to battle the watchmen to stay at the scene, and she had to wait until another opportunity rose before she could push forward again. She was determined to get a good look at everything once she got to the front again.
When she finally did get to the front again, she was able to take a long look at the entire scene in front of the hospital before she was pushed back. Even though she had swept her eyes over everything there was to see, she didn’t understand a single thing.
There were five corpses on the steps in front of the hospital. Two were human, two were elves, and the fifth was a dog. One elf worked for the hospital, she knew that much by his uniform and the badge on the front, but she couldn’t recognize the elf since half of his face was ripped off. She assumed it was the dog that had done this, but this couldn’t have been the case since one of the humans was lying across the elf, her mouth around the elf’s cheek, teeth dug deep into the skin. The other human was lying a few feet away, his throat torn out and on the ground beside him. The other elf was lying with the dog, both of them were missing skin and muscle, bone peeking out from inside their bodies, but their faces were intact.
Kesirine was pushed back into the crowd and she let it push her back until she was on the fringes again. She hadn’t recognized two of the dead, but she knew all the other corpses. The dog was hers, the mutt they’d taken into their home a few years ago. She had called him Loner. The elf with the dog was Larine.
Then there was the human that had been with the elf from the hospital. It was Mrs. Babash, Kesirine’s neighbor who had died a few days ago of the fever. Kesirine had seen them carry Mrs. Babash out of the house, she saw them pull the sheet over the dead woman’s face. She saw Mr. Babash weeping in the doorway.
If she had seen all these things, how could she have seen Mrs. Babash on the steps outside the hospital, the flesh of another person between her teeth?
Kesirine’s left hand rested on her pistol, the right hand on her sword. Maybe she didn’t understand what had happened on the steps of the hospital, but she understood that if she had to, she would defend herself, but from what she couldn’t say. Masew found her standing on guard away from the crowd.
“Mama’s dead,” Kesirine told her father. “Loner too.”
Masew nodded. “They told me.”
“Mrs. Babash did it,” Kesirine said and she knew how ridiculous it sounded as the words came out of her mouth, to say that the dead woman had killed her mother, her dog, some elf from the hospital, and another person she couldn’t name. She didn’t know that Mrs. Babash did anything, but she knew.
“I know,” Masew said, and she was surprised that her father agreed with her. There was no way Mrs. Babash had done it, but they had all decided that she had.
Masew pulled Kesirine’s hand away from her sword and took it in his own, and together they walked home, the blood draining from Kesirine’s hand as her father squeezed just a little too hard.