Fist Fight in the Sky: A Small Hero’s Last Will and Testament
For Made Up Words
Ash. Kat dug his long fingers into the silken-soft memory of fire deep on the ground. The coolness of ash comforted him. It meant the end of fires. “It’s ash now,” they’d say back home. It meant peace times; it meant fires had gone out. Back home, anyway, it meant peace times. He wasn’t home anymore.
Last fires crackled in a few of the skeletons of shanties left standing after the blaze. Kat smelled the seared bodies in the flames. Nothing except the flames moved in the cluster of shanties. Nothing except one creaking sign made of corrugated steel nearly detached from a post at an end of the main “road.” The chunk of corrugated steel used to read “The Cracks” in crude letters dashed with a thick marker. The sign was now burned all black.
Terms like “town,” “road,” and “sign” were all a bit over-grand for the scattered shanties that had been the Cracks. Them that roasted the Cracks roasted a small population of the forgotten and the abandoned. No one cared about them.
“This is from dragon fire,” Kat said, sifting his fingers through the ash.
“The troublous critter?” Coon jutted his chin toward a large, winged creature, soaring near a bluff some distance away.
“Looks like it from here,” Kat replied.
“I reckon it’s time for huntin’, then.”
“Looks like,” Kat said.
Coon nodded. He put his machete away on his back and put his wide-brimmed hat back on and started walking.
Kat followed. They got into Coon’s open-topped Jeep and raised dust in the desert.
Coon, hairless and pale, had skin with a gnarled quality, like all one scar covered him. He had small eyes that squinted and a small nose that pointed. His mouth jutted and his small teeth were sharp. He had pointed ears, but Kat couldn’t say if that was natural or more scarring. They weren’t pointed symmetrically. He was thin as a skeleton, with long feet and hands, but he was strong as a snake and nearly as flexible as one.
Kat had never seen anything like Coon before, but Kat knew that Coon hadn’t seen anything like Kat before either. Kat stood head and shoulders taller than Coon, with broad shoulders and pale skin. He shaved the hair on the sides of his head short, grew the top out in a long swoosh down the side of his face, and kept the back in dreadlocks that hung down past his waist. His eyes were red-on-black, and deep in them an orange spark glowed like an ember. Most people Coon and Kat knew dressed in clothes like a post-apocalyptic idea of a cowboy. Kat wore black — black pants, and a black coat that flowed in light-absorbing folds down to the toes of his black boots. According to the tailor who’d made them, his clothes were made out of a blend of spider silk, shadows, and nightmares. Kat didn’t know what that meant, but he knew that it was durable stuff.
Coon didn’t ask about Kat, which Kat preferred, so Kat didn’t ask about Coon. The arrangement suited.
Wearing reflective sunglasses, Coon idly watched the dragon wheeling in the distance. It didn’t take much effort to track a dragon in flight, not across the expanses of the Sonoran Desert. Coon had one lazy hand resting on the steering wheel; with the other hand he shifted gears. The rough terrain got the Jeep shuddering. Air thick with dust and nearly brown by sun-scorching fluffed into Kat’s face. He kept his eyes squinted against grit.
“It ain’t that depressin’ to die alone,” Coon was saying.
“It sounds depressing,” Kat said.
“So you’ve got a good family life?” Coon said.
“Not according to my father. He turned me into the Tuomari Päälikö.”
“Them’s some warbled words, mate.”
“Judge chiefs. The lawmen.”
“Ah. Called the cops on you.”
Kat shrugged. “If you say so.”
“Anyway, how it is, see: with a good family life you’d be worryin’ about bein’ missed, and about missin’ family. That’s why it sounds depressin’ to die alone.”
“It sounds depressing anyway,” Kat said. He put a hand up to brace himself against the Jeep’s frame. Coon made a sliding turn around a boulder. Gravel skittered in front of the back tires. Gunning the engine, Coon powered the Jeep down a mild and mostly clear incline.
“Then you ain’t really thought much about it, Kitty Kat,” Coon said. “Not really.”
Kat pondered for a moment. He decided he didn’t feel like he had the energy to argue his perspective. “Maybe,” he said, fingering his cell phone.
“When you think about it, it ain’t depressin’ to die alone. I’ll tell you why.”
“Do,” Kat invited.
“When you think about it, see, dyin’ alone ain’t different from livin’ in a crowd.”
“Explain your reasoning,” Kat said. They gained slow ground on the dragon in the sky. It helped in their pursuit that the dragon took a meandering path. Kat didn’t know what would happen when it noticed them.
“See, you’re alone in your own head, ain’t you?” Coon said.
“I suppose,” Kat said.
“Don’t matter about no thing. Don’t matter if you find your soul mate. Don’t matter if you turn out to be a poet with such elegant graces that you cast solid illusions into the imaginative landscapes of everyone who hears you speak.”
Kat raised an eyebrow. “Pretty,” he said.
“Don’t matter about nothin’,” Coon said, shifting to third and gunning the engine. “You’ll live your life filled mostly with experiences shared with no one but yourself. Don’t matter what happen, you live alone.”
“I see your point.”
“You know how they say your life flashes before your eyes in your last breaths?”
“I have heard that,” Kat said. The dragon wheeled and its flight pattern became less vague. “Hmm. Turning towards us, do you think?”
Coon grinned with all his spiky teeth. He accelerated, crunching through a pile of tumbleweeds.
“People talk like watchin’ their life flash before their eyes frightens them, don’t they?” Coon said.
Kat shrugged. People back home died without making a fuss. Death needed to happen as much as anything else, and they moved forward with it sensibly. Kat wasn’t sure he would do the same. “As you say, Coon.”
“I’ll tell you what, though, it ain’t a scary thing if that happens. I heard a guy say everyone dies alone. Makes sense if everyone lives alone.”
“That does make sense,” Kat agreed. “As a statement of logic.”
“Right. So, then, your life’s all yours. Ain’t no one else’s. It’s your only real personal possession.”
“I see the logic.” Kat turned up the stereo. “We Are the Dead” by Does It Offend You, Yeah? was playing. He rubbed his palms together. Grit came out of the cracks in his skin in little rolls. He didn’t like that about this place: it was dusty and he had trouble staying clean.
“Well, so death ain’t depressin’.” Coon simultaneously pulled the handbrake and made a turn. The Jeep slid to a halt near the shadow of a bluff, throwing up a cloud of dust. The dragon had unmistakably wheeled to fly toward them.
“I don’t see the through-line,” Kat said.
Coon’s mouth twisted into another smile. “Life’s all built of experiences we only have with ourselves. And dyin’ can’t get told about with anyone. Ain’t goin’ to have an opportunity to chat about it over the fire later. So dyin’ is the most intimate experience you’ll ever have. That don’t sound depressin’ at all.”
Kat had an alternate theory. He didn’t voice it. “No, it doesn’t when you say it like that,” he said.
Looking pleased with himself, Coon switched off the engine. He left the stereo on, turning it up. He and Kat got out of the Jeep and armed themselves.
Kat had a bunch of slim knives secreted around his person, and he had a long sword. Coon had his machete, and he wore a bowie knife on his hip. From the back of the Jeep, Coon got himself a shotgun and filled his thigh pockets with shells.
“Have you been practicing with your bolas?” Coon asked. Kat nodded, taking the suggested weapon with him. It was a length of thin but strong nylon rope with a weight at either end. Because Coon had designed this particular one, the weights were covered in spikes. The weapon was at the end of a long coil of the same light but strong rope. Kat took it, slinging it over his shoulder.
Content with their equipment, Kat and Coon took off at a run across the crusty desert. They moved away from the Jeep through sagebrush and toward a slight rise with a flat top of bare red stone, glowering under the roasting sun. Before getting there, they crouched in the shade of a boulder.
“Split up, do you reckon?” Coon said. “I’ll draw the beastie off, then you jump out and try to snare it. Then we climb up and stab it out of the sky. What do you think?”
Kat nodded, preparing his bolas. Coon spat through his teeth in the shade, then ran up to the flat top of the rise. He unslung his shotgun. Kat waited without looking. He heard a shush of wings large as yacht sails. A gravelly shout, less of a noise and more of a whirlwind, blew a gust of heat around the edges of the boulder where he hid. Singed air tousled his hair. The already hot desert smelled suddenly of fireworks. Kat waited for another moment, listening for evidence that Coon survived the first onslaught. For a second he feared that Coon hadn’t. Then, accompanied by venomously shouted curses, the sound of Coon’s shotgun echoed across the desert.
Counting two deep breaths, Kat stood and ran at a dead sprint in a direction parallel to the dragon. The fiery breath followed him. He kept at a sprint. In his experience, there was no tricky way of defending against dragons. All you could do was run like hell and hope the dragon hadn’t guessed which way you picked. Kat didn’t get roasted right away. That comforted him. He turned his head just a touch, keeping his peripheral vision on the dragon. Its attention stayed on Coon for now.
Dragons are not very good at hovering. This one had landed, the better to snatch and grab at Coon. It couldn’t belch flame again quite yet — needed to recharge, or something. Kat had only a sketchy idea of dragon physiology. In his experience dragons needed a little bit of time between bursts of flame. Coon made all he could of the delay, firing repeated blasts with his shotgun and darting around to avoid the dragon’s crashing claws. The shotgun blasts damaged the dragon about as much as splattering bacon grease damages a human. Eventually, enough shotgun blasts would damage a dragon, but it would take a lot.
Coon could be an irritating little jerk. He always had what was either the best timing for being an ass or the worst timing for being kind of okay. Usually a character trait that lost him friends, it proved advantageous in moments like this. Kat got nearly behind the dragon before it got a hint it was about to be outflanked. Already frustrated by little, skipping Coon and his stinger, the dragon leapt into the air to avoid getting flanked. It let loose a scream of anger.
Kat saw something on the dragon’s back, but couldn’t be bothered with the something yet. Other things to do.
Unshipping the bolas took a flick of nothing. Kat had them spinning in another flick. Taking a few heartbeats to make his sighting, Kat aimed for the dragon’s back talons. With a grunting shout, Kat threw the bolas before the dragon rose out of range. The coil of rope now loosely held in his hand pattered off his fingers, and his heart fluttered painfully. He stared at the bolas spinning through the air. He was pretty new to the weapon and by no means felt confident that he made a good throw.
The flight of the rapidly spinning bolas left him with only a moment to agonize about it. Then the rope hit the leg of the dragon. The weights at the ends of the rope whirled around the leg. The spikes on the weights stuck into the dragon’s thick hide. Kat let out another growling shout.
Kat took tight hold of the end of the rope still in his hand, preparing for a wrench and hoping that it didn’t dislocate anything in him. He briefly wondered if it would be wiser to tense all his muscles or leave them loose. Blearing adrenaline decided for him that every muscle in his body would flex. The slack in the rope fluttered off the ground. The dragon swept up with massive sail-thwacks of its wings. Another shout grew in Kat’s throat, starting as a growl.
The slack of the rope ran out. On a down-sweep of the dragon’s wings the rope went taught. A crack of tension jerked Kat off the ground. It felt like a tooth getting pulled but in his whole body. The dragon flew forward and away. Kat wasn’t certain if it even noticed his weight. The dragon kept flying. It drew Kat across the hill. Kat kept his feet, just barely. He didn’t notice the gravelly shout he was releasing.
Coon intersected with him. Just in time, too. The dragon chose that moment to make an upward swoop. Kat reached out a hand to Coon. Coon grabbed for it. Just as the dragon swept up, Kat grasped Coon’s arm. Coon didn’t weigh very much. Kat was able to pull Coon up. Coon reached above Kat’s head and grabbed the rope for himself. He started clambering up toward the dragon. Slower — feeling stretched — Kat climbed after him.
“Why the fuck are we doin’ this?” Coon yelled down through the wind at Kat. “It’s pretty insane.”
“Born to die, I guess, or some shit like that,” Kat shouted back.
“Is it suspicious that the dragon ain’t makin’ any effort to shake us? Sort of feels suspicious.”
“Aw, fuck, I hope not,” Kat said. That hadn’t occurred to him. There was nothing for it but to follow through on the adventure. He climbed with a growing heaviness in his chest.
“This is a frightenin’ way to hunt dragons,” Coon said.
“It’s an adventure for both of us,” Kat said.
“Wait… I thought you said you’ve hunted dragons before.”
“Well, yeah, but not like this. Dragon hunting takes a village, literally.”
Kat drew up the rope after himself, coiling it as well as he could. When they climbed nearly up to the dragon’s talon, Kat paused and sighted. Leaning as far as he could away from the rope, he tossed the coil over the dragon’s sweeping tail. It spun and uncoiled as it went through the air, falling in a long line over the other side of the tail. Kat swung, reaching for it. After three tries, he caught it. He tied the rope to itself so it hung in a long loop over the solid base of the dragon’s tail.
“Good thought,” Coon said. “I wasn’t sure what we’d do at this point. After you, eh?”
Struggling every foot of the way, Kat climbed. The rope thrashed with the waving of the dragon’s tail. The hot, dry wind blew against him. After what felt like an eternity of fighting, Kat came in arm’s reach of the rough skin of the dragon. It felt like warmed and leathery gravel. It was dusty too. He’d need a long swim in some cold body of water after this. If he survived.
The dragon’s skin was rough enough that he could brace himself against it. Pulling himself by the rope and the coarse skin, Kat reached and grabbed one of the smallish spinal ridges protruding from the top of the dragon’s tail. Getting both hands onto the ridges, Kat swung himself on top of the dragon’s broad tail.
Kat watched the undulation of the dragon. Big as a hill with all the motion of a wave in the ocean, the dragon flowed in a roiling rise away from him. The dragon’s wings swooped down, and his shoulders rose, obscuring the head and neck. Kat saw something on the dragon’s back. He had to wait for only a second to see what.
The dragon’s wings rose, and its shoulders dropped. Past the shoulders Kat saw the dragon’s head, looking around at the absolutely empty sky above the roasting Sonoran Desert. At the base of the dragon’s neck, just as bothered as if he was on the deck of a ship, stood a fairy.
Kat understood that some people thought of fairies as little bug things with fluttery wings and a sense of humor. Maybe fairies existed that were like that. Kat had never met any. Most fairies were as tall and slim as him. This one had its silvery hair loose and long past his elbows. He wore fluttery pale blue robes that looked like they were made of silk and satin but were probably made of something weird like the North Wind and the crackling sound of ice breaking under you. This fairy looked grievous enough that associations like that would be appropriate. He glowered at Kat out of large lightning-blue eyes.
A long, curved sword hung at his waist. He hadn’t drawn it yet, but Kat supposed he would soon.
Kat knew the fairy’s name: Rime-on-Heartsease. They had not yet shared the displeasure of a formal introduction, but Kat knew enough about the fairy not to feel comforted to see him.
The dragon’s wings whooshed down again. Its shoulders again rose, dropping the fairy out of sight.
“Hey!” Coon said. Trying not to look away from the direction of Rime, Kat gave Coon a hand up onto the dragon too. Coon couldn’t keep his balance enough to stand up straight on the waving dragon’s tail, but he crouched fine.
Kat unsheathed his long sword on his hike up the hill of the dragon’s back. The dragon’s back started dropping. In a flash like a blast of winter through a broken window, Rime launched over the crest of the dragon’s back. Kat got his sword up fast enough to deflect Rime’s sword. It threw him off balance. One of Kat’s feet slipped. Kat fell onto his chest. Rime leapt past him. By then, fortunately, Coon had found good footing. With his machete in one hand and his bowie knife in the other, Coon was ready when Rime’s sword sang through the hot air toward him. Coon deflected with his knife. With his machete, Coon hacked at Rime. Lightning-flash fast, Rime withdrew his sword far enough to block with its long hand. Coon’s machete clattered on the handle. Coon snarled.
Jumping again to his feet, Kat thrust his sword at Rime. Hearing or sensing him, Rime’s foot swooped up. He deflected Kat’s sword with his foot. In a movement fluid as a snow flurry, Rime disengaged his sword from Coon, swinging the point to stab toward Kat. Without any interruption, Rime spun his still-raised foot in a full arc. It crashed across Coon’s head. Coon, already not quite comfortably balanced, flew sideways. Coon flew off the dragon into the hot air.
Rime didn’t give Kat time to react to that. The fairy’s curved sword, slicing the air, came toward Kat. Loosening his grip, Kat spun his sword. Kat braced the flat side of his sword against his forearm. With it he blocked Rime’s cut. Thinking that he saw an opening, Kat brought his bent elbow down onto Rime’s neck. At least, Kat meant to do that. Instead, he stumbled. He overextended his elbow through air barely laced by wispy hairs flying after Rime’s ducking head. In the same instant, Rime withdrew his sword. Kat’s sword didn’t have anything to push against anymore; he stumbled further. Before he knew what happened, Kat felt a gentle nudge on his back. Gentle, but strong enough to send him flying forward. For a few painful flutters of his heart, Kat thought he would fall off the dragon’s hot-gravel back. Fortunately the sail-like expanse of the dragon’s wing loomed in front of him. While falling into the oddly soft cushion of the air-filled wing, Kat couldn’t help but reflect glumly that he felt woefully outclassed.
Anticipating the cold sharpness of Rime’s sword driven through his back, Kat braced himself. The stab didn’t come in the first heartbeat, though. Taking full advantage of the delay, Kat swiftly rolled onto his back. While he thrashed around on the dragon’s wing, he noted a strong set of tremors and loud cries of protest from the dragon. The protesting reminded him of his initial purpose on the dragon’s back. It would be a fair way of addressing the Rime problem, at least for a moment. His heartbeat’s-length opportunity to experience falling off the dragon, though, made him wish that he and Coon thought of better plans.
Speaking of Coon…
The wily creature, Coon, had not fallen all the way to the ground when Rime kicked him off the dragon’s back. Coon managed to catch the dangling end of their rope. His momentum carried him in a long swoop under the dragon. Apparently incapable of making a sound the whole trip, Coon then swung up high above the dragon. At the top of the swing, his momentum and angle happened to be just right to turn him into a little, wiry, machete and bowie knife wielding mortar falling with bared, sharpened teeth right on top of Rime. With bemused surprise, Rime watched Coon float toward him as if he couldn’t quite believe it.
Taking a — clumsy, because of the unsteady footing on the wing — running leap, Kat raised his sword. Both hands — point down — stabbing fashion. He aimed just behind the wings for the place the heart usually was in dragons. A shout of effort welled up in his throat. It turned into a curse when his target morphed. The dragon barreled in midair, flipped onto its back. Its front claws swiped up toward Kat. Kat tried to backpedal in midair, in spite of how ridiculous that was. It did nothing to slow his fall, but it got his feet falling first. He managed to tap his toe on one of the dragon’s massive claws. It redirected him enough to twist between the dragon’s other claws. That permitted him to get past the claws and land on the dragon’s hot and leathery belly. It would have been a less desirable place to be, had it not been for the dragon’s own undesirable place. To execute the barrel, the dragon had to fold both its wings. It was now in freefall and needed to correct before it could do anything else.
Kat looked up the yellow-brown belly of the dragon. It turned its angry-eyed head away from him, pointing its nose back toward the ground. It went into a dive. Kat was buffeted and dragged along against the curving belly of the dragon. Kat went from being above the dragon to beside it then, suddenly, under the shadow of it. With a howling boom, the dragon’s wings opened again. It stayed its fall and rose in a rush from Kat. Kat found himself fluttering through empty air pondering on how he really ought to have seen that coming. It was quite a relatively small dragon after all. Only a few dozen yards long in the body. Smaller dragons were notoriously more intelligent.
Kat had only a moment to process several impressions. He admired the expanse of rust-red land spread unarguably under him, and he noted that Coon and Rime were probably quite surprised to be falling, as they were, some distance below him. He also pondered for a moment how irritating it felt to die in such a lingering way, a way that so demonstrated one’s powerlessness over one’s fate, as falling for several thousand feet out of the air and onto cactus-prickled desert. The cactus was just an insulting barb on the situation. He felt like, if he a) had the time and b) could justify the expenditure of said time even if he had it, then he would have been able to mangle a poem out of the situation. Maybe even a song.
His ponderings received rude interruption a second later. A column of wind whacked him aside. The column of wind held in its middle the body of the dragon. The dragon dove past him, its wings tucked in again. It rushed down like thunder. With little wing movements it adjusted its speed and angle, maneuvering to match speed with Rime. Taking his chance, Kat angled headfirst after the dragon’s wind-guiding tail. The dragon made a gradual roll up under Rime. Rime smoothly alighted between the dragon’s shoulders, his feet far apart and his center of gravity almost below his knees. At the same time, Kat made a snatch at the last spike protruding from the dragon’s tail.
When the dragon evened out again, Rime again stood on its back, calm as a winter frost. Kat managed to hold onto the spike in spite of the lashing of the tail guiding the dragon’s flight and trying to get Kat off. Only Coon failed to get back on the dragon. Kat watched Coon falling, flailing, a ways beside and below the dragon. Coon would have been doomed to the ground, but the dragon had not forgotten Coon, which was not actually better news for him.
The dragon twisted in the air, zooming toward Coon. Kat barely held on. He watched the dragon’s jaws close around Coon. Coon resisted. The dragon chomped its teeth twice. Any motion from Coon ceased after the second time. Now, apparently, done with Coon, the dragon dove. It spat Coon out on top of the tallest mountain in the region. After its dive, the drop down to the top of the peak wasn’t lethal, especially for Kat. Kat was durable. He could fall from a long way before he started worrying about it. Not sure why he did it — maybe partly from weariness, maybe because he knew the value of bowing out of a fight — Kat let go of the dragon’s tail. He hurtled down toward the mountain. Angling himself to land on his feet, Kat crunched into the ground. The dust rose around his crouching impact like debris from a meteor crash.
Now more distant in the hot and enclosingly motionless air, a bass thrumming flew before the dragon as it wheeled to again come toward him. Kat could hear it well enough to know what it wanted. And, more important, he could tell where it was in the sky.
Barely requiring his sight to do it, Kat whirled. Dust flew up from where his feet slid across the ground. His wrist and fingers twitched. A dull glint flicked, tracing action lines in the air. Rime stumbled on the dragon’s back. The handle of Kat’s knife stuck out of the flesh just interior of the fairy’s shoulder. Clumsy, Kat thought. It didn’t hit Rime’s heart. Perhaps that was better, though, because Rime yelled startled commands at the dragon. Clearly against its desires to return unpleasantness in kind, the dragon turned to leave Kat alone. With a final frustrated roar, the dragon beat its wings and rose away from the mountaintop.
Kat’s heart thumped. His blood pumped in his ears. For a little while he watched the dragon retreat, making sure it didn’t turn around again, and he felt grateful for the apparent skittishness of Rime-on-Heartsease the fairy.
At a jog, he approached the place he had seen Coon go down. Dragons have a good set of instincts about how much damage to inflict to not quite kill things. They liked playing with their food. So Coon had a chance.
Coon lay crumpled in a thicket of shattered brambles. He was, in fact, alive. His breath came in gurgles. No part of his body looked undamaged. Kat pulled Coon out of the brambles to a shadier spot nearby under the edge of some sagebrush.
“Well, Coon,” Kat said, examining the wounds overwhelming Coon’s body. It didn’t take much looking. “Looks like you are not long for this world.”
Coon clutched at Kat’s sleeve. His words made sticky by the blood in his throat, Coon said, “Don’t leave me.”
“I won’t, Coon,” Kat said. He grasped Coon’s hand. Relative to the desert air, his bloody hand felt cool. The slick of blood felt silken.
A soupy wash of hot air moved in a lazy haze around them. Sunshine pricked down from above. Blood-wetted breathing slowed and faded. It left no sound but the rustle of wind in the dry wild sage.
Climbing to his feet, Kat turned to the receding, fluttering beast. At this distance, the dragon looked like a bat searching for insects in the hot, blue sky.
It didn’t take much effort to track a dragon in flight, especially one who wasn’t expecting you. His bloodied fingers slick on the handle of his sword when he put it away on his back. Kat started walking across the crackling desert.
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Copyright 2016 | Editor Tom Farr