Darren removed his helm and tossed it aside, exhausted.

Acrid black smoke filled the sky, blocking out the midday sun. Gouts of flame scorched the gore-spattered ground. Lurking amidst the smoke, the sickly sweet stench of death crackled off of festering flesh. The carrion crows had long since abandoned the feast, fleeing from the larger predator that loomed. Darren stood alone, a sole survivor amid the carnage. His shield was dented, his mail rent in several places, and his face throbbed in response to the deep gouge on his left cheek. Warm blood trickled down his chin, dripping to the ground in a slow, rhythmic pattern that belied his racing pulse.

Darren made his way through the wreckage with labored strides. A lean boy of sixteen years, he was hard-pressed to bear the weight of his armor. The path was soft and slick from the trample of frantic feet and splashes of wine-red blood; it was all Darren could do not to fall. On his left, the roof of what used to be the trading post gave way to the flames, caving in with a sudden crash. Darren continued his slow progress, surveying the burning remnants that signified where the town once stood.

A few paces ahead he encountered one of the town’s oxen. The animal bore a sickening gash on its left side, and its hind legs were crumpled. It lay in a pool of its own blood, swarmed by flies that flitted in and out of the deep wound. Further along lay the blacksmith, reduced to a charred skeleton. His wife and two daughters were sprawled around him, bearing similar burns. Darren fell to his knees and retched. He tasted metal as the bile stung his chapped lips. The dead were all around him. Burning, rotting corpses.

The wind began to rock the trees as Darren wiped his mouth with the back of his leather bracer. Swirling smoke and a keening whistle high above signaled that the wait had ended. It’s back. Darren gripped his shield tighter, though he knew it was useless. He stumbled past the edge of the burning town, into the field beyond that had become a graveyard. The boy ran for less than a minute—which seemed like an eternity—before he stopped. The reprieve was over. Why did it come back? he wondered. There would be no stopping it. No defense.

Surging through the clouds the dread shadow returned, wheeling back over the wreckage in Darren’s direction. Its iridescent scales gleamed black and red as it approached, reflecting the surrounding flames. With one last pass, the dragon’s flames consumed the town, spewing forth as if from hell itself. Any small part of the place that had survived was now gone. Devoured.

The behemoth looped back around, stopping in front of the boy. Lingering in the air, it flapped its massive, leathery wings to hover just above the field. Darren lost his footing on the second flap, bowled over by the staggering gust of hot air. He lay there motionless, frozen by a sublime terror. With one last resounding beating of its wings, the beast landed, shaking earth and sky. Only twenty paces away, Darren was blasted by each hot breath that escaped the monster’s nostrils. The dragon considered the boy for a brief moment . . . then it unhinged its maw towards the sky, issuing a bone-piercing shriek and spurt of red-blue fire. The beast extended its neck towards Darren until its smoking snout was mere feet from the boy’s face.

Darren could not move, could not scream. He couldn’t breathe. All he could do was watch. So many teeth, he thought. Many more than the last.

The dragon danced its thick, muscular tongue along a row of incisors, each longer than Darren’s arm. It longed to taste the flames it had just spewed. Anticipated the blood that it was about to sample.

Darren had never seen one quite so big. Or so majestic. There was an undeniable beauty about the creature, despite its dreadful grin and bloodstained claws. The dragon was the size of a small castle, and he guessed it to be over a thousand years old. Darren stared into one of its eyes, lost in the sinister gleam that resided there. He saw death.

Mind racing, Darren tried to scramble backwards. Father, he pleaded in his head. “Father!” this time aloud. And then again. The dragon shrieked his discontent, silencing the boy’s screams. Darren swallowed hard, tears streaming from his eyes, blood seeping down the side of his face. He had just begun to wonder how many other towns the creature had sacked when the flames hit him. Unrelenting heat racked Darren’s body, his skin blistering and popping. The blinding pain rendered the boy incapable of watching as the dragon snapped forward, jaws wide. And swallowed him whole.