The town was built in the same style as all the others along the Great East-West Road, with buildings made of old wooden planks and placed haphazardly, as if they had been thrown by a giant child and left lying in the hard tan dirt when the gods were called to dinner. But this town had more of the structures, and each structure had more junk, tools, and knick-knacks laying about or hanging on iron pegs hammered into support columns at irregular intervals and angles. A thin layer of the gray local dust covered everything, but it covered it all more lightly than in other towns. The hard-packed dirt of the roads kicked up less dust and was packed in harder than usual, suggesting that there were extra pairs of boots to do the kicking and packing.
As the wanderer came upon the down, dripping with such volumes of sweat that both he and the torso of his hard, weathered horse had been bathed clean of dust, he saw tucked away on the south side of a building to the south a pile of rotten wood planks, the bottom most of which had started to grow small, scraggly weeds and the top of which had yet to even accumulate dust. South of a building to the north of the road lay another pile of lumber, all cleanly cut and neatly stacked. Dust had settled on the higher half of the stack, but a fair number of planks had been recently uncovered.
The buildings, while as shoddily constructed as every building along the Waste, showed some signs of care. New boards had been installed, sitting clean and light next to older dust-weathered lumber, but there were no rotten boards and none warped so badly as to allow more than a slit of light through. The few windows had thick, uneven glass, but it was kept as clear as it's imperfect nature allowed.
The true story of the town's prosperity was told with the location of the saloon, not in the middle of town to the north of the only road, as was common, but at the south face of a T-Junction marking it as the terminus for a northward road. Like the east-west road it was nothing more than hard-packed dirt which grew indistinguishable from the desolate landscape as one traveled out from the town.
Outside the saloon were hitched four horses to the right of the porch. Two were old working mares with marks along their coat from where they had been harnessed for years. One was a brilliant white breeding stallion whose coat reflected the sun so well it was difficult to look at, so nearby eyes were drawn to the fourth horse.
The fourth horse was not a local horse. Anyone who did not know all the local horses by sight would still recognize this stallion as out of his element. He wore over his head and mane scaled plate armor, decorated with tiny engraved crosses of war held by angels in scenes both ancient and holy. A single rounded plate covered his rump which doubled, with the help of a substantial amount of leather straps, as a packing harness. On either side it held two long, study spears which each ran the length of his torso and two feet more. On the top, and currently listing into the saddle, was a large leather pack, held shut with thick leather and metal clamps as well as a fat iron chain. The pack bore the ink runes of the northern holy men said to possess all sorts of magic, though the wanderer had no mind to challenge the tales.
He hitched his hard, weathered horse on the left side of the porch. While it was tired now from days of travel, it would soon recover and though it was outweighed by every other horse on the line, the wanderer kept him apart more out of consideration for the other horses than any worries for his own beast. He stepped up on the clean-swept, lightly stained wood of the saloon porch and walked through the doors.
The wanderer had passed towns with fewer people than sat in that saloon, though being the middle of the day it was no where near capacity and clung tenaciously to the ambiance of vacancy. The conversations were calm, subdued by the heat of the day which permeated even into the shaded building. Though the room was clean and the tables organized into rows, chairs were scattered around the room, evidence of a commotion that had since died down. The cause of the commotion was seated in the middle of the room, now alone, eating quietly.
The woman was of a piece with her horse, solid and powerfully built. Her iron gauntlets were laid to the side leaving her powerful, callused hands free to eat. Her arms were unconcealed up to the biceps, where chain link draped from her shoulder guards which wrapped around behind her neck and upper back, a single large engraved pilgrim's cross peeking out from behind a short, tight brown ponytail. Her solid steel breastplate bulged out perhaps slightly more than a man's might, but aside from the two foot tall inlaid bronze cross in the middle held no embellishment. She sat concealing steel leg guards and boots, all of the same workmanship and possessed of the same obvious durability.
There were few isolated tables left, but it was as the wanderer made his way towards one such that the knight-errant called him out.
"Hail, gunslinger" she called, giving him a stern look and a gripping gaze. The wanderer conceded to her company and set himself at her table. "Not, I" he explained as he approached.
"You have the look", she commented.
"I have guns."
"Are you Law?" she asked
"Not even slightly."
The knight gave a puzzled look as a man came to their table and asked if the visitors knew each other.
"So you are not a resident of this town."
"No, but," he said, turning to the attendant, "if you have any more of that beef..." He finished the sentence by dropping a thick brass coin onto the table. The server cast an appreciative gaze at the coin. The wanderer read his expression and added, "Gin, as well." The server nodded and picked up the coin before returning to the back of the saloon.
Heads had begun to turn, but, while those nearby kept an ear reserved for the strangers, they remained in their own conversations.
"I haven't seen you on the road, are you headed east?" The wanderer commented.
"I am headed south."
"There is nothing to the south."
"There is almost nothing."
The wanderer's face lost its habitually flat demeanor in favor of genuine surprise. "You know this for truth?"
"Such is the testament of the priests," the wanderer's excitement died. He fell back into his usual restraint as she continued, "I am as confident in that as I can be of anything I have not seen with my own eyes."
"The words of old books, read in failing light by failing old men?"
"My sect-master is an old man, but this truth comes not from books of any age. At mid-day exactly of midsummer last, the master sat in the exact center of an ancient temple. He had found his inner balance when a light appeared along the arch of his nose, equidistant from his eyes. The master's apprentice looked through him and into the light and witnessed a vision. Within the vision within the master within the ancient temple he saw the wasteland of death at the end of the southern road where time itself has perished and the people have no past. Beyond the end of that road is a desolate expanse, a place so vast and empty that even the soulless of the waste cannot survive there. Above the expanse, coming from a land darker still, so distant as to be unknowable even through divine vision, was a beast of terror and destruction, flying fast to annihilate the twisted and crumbling wreckage of what remains of the human realm."
"A dragon." the wanderer spoke under his breath, but the saloon had fallen silent, amplifying his words for the townsfolk. It was in that silence that a great wind arose, a single hard pulse of air which made its way through even the cracks in the walls with enough force to lift plates up from the tables and into the walls. When the burst passed, no one who had been standing or on a stool remained upright and the less stoic among the crowd let out alarmed yelps and screams.
Those screams were drowned out in short order by the second great pulse. The transient flow of air hit the upper floor of the saloon as if it were a building sized boulder pushing the wooden planks so powerfully that they had no time to snap before ripping the planks below them from the very foundation of the building. A moment later, however, all the pent up shattering hit, raining splinters and sawdust and sticks and logs on the customers.
The roof hit the ground all at once with an impressive thud, followed almost immediately by a great, source less pounding as if mocking the force a collapsing building could exert. Those still on their feet were thrown to the ground and those on the ground were flung into the air, only to fall back into the pit of splinters and shards. The sounds of collapsing buildings could be heard throughout the town, but so much dust had been kicked up that the air was suffused in a thick, grey cloud, obscuring even the far edges of the rubble from the sight of the injured tavern-goers.
Even as the prodigious cracking of wood subsided, the moans of the wounded began to grow, the rising chorus of a dire symphony. And then the roar sounded, the screech of ten thousand mad ravens shredding the air from a single point, blanketing out all other sound, imprisoning the townsfolk in a dim nightmare world of impenetrable gray, the uniform pain of being tossed through wreckage, and a mad screaming din muting all external existence. The sound continued, paralyzing the mortals beneath it.
The wanderer kicked upward, moving what had been a table off of his body with every bit of power as his nerves fell to twitching. The table flew higher than a man could jump and crashed back down into the dusty gloom a few yards away, eliciting two barely audible screams of pain at what must have been the full lung capacities of the impromptu duetists. No longer physically bound, he found himself less mobile, pinned only by the unseen force of the sound and the pain of innumerable wooden shards pierced deep into his body.
The roar, as impossible as it seemed to those suffering, finally faded away, leaving a paralyzing shock under the clouds of dust and splinters. The wanderer began to assess the damage to his body. He had reached seventy three wounds and gotten from his left toes to his left shin when he decided that the usual methods were not going to be effective here. His shoulders slumped and he let his head fall back against the hard. irregular debris. His eyes were wide and both hands were loosely gripped around holsters, his left holding wood paneled grips and his right around iron.
A third gust of wind blew through, clearing the sky in an instant. The wanderer squinted briefly in the sudden, harsh sunlight but his eyes soon adjusted and fell upon a shining figure towering above the wreckage, helm gleaming in the sunlight, broadsword in her left hand, steel-shafted spear in her right. His eyes darted around, unable to stare too long at the light reflected in the spotless steel and saw a town that had been literally flattened, nothing rising above the knight's armored thighs. She stood proud and firm, a pillar of light among the blood and splinters, the second tallest thing clear out to the horizon.
In front of her where the town crossroads had once been, stood the tallest thing in town. The dragon was hunched, wings folded in at the conclusion of the most recent flap, leaning as if perched on a branch, though what tree would hold such a beast defied imagining. As the creature pulled its greenish dun wings back out it revealed a chest of fine white scales running together so smoothly that they could almost be mistaken for soft. It's legs, even bent as they were, reached the beast's torso at a height greater then two men standing atop each other, and it was the height of another five such legs to the top of it's wingspan. Those wings were a leather thicker than a cat at the very bottom, and the bones at the shoulder were thicker than a horse's gut, though they reached out through the wing to appear as fine filaments.
When the beast pulled itself to full wingspan, a reach which ran longer than the town, such that neither tip cast a shadow on wreckage but on the dirt of the wastes, it hunched forward and straightened out it's legs, casting itself upward with a mighty push which spread the viscera of horses and men that had clung to its jaws upon the broken wood and broken bodies of those left behind. The wind of this fourth thrust crushed the survivors back down upon the wood shards, but the screams were drowned by a final departing roar.
A roar that was joined by a harmony. As the dragon left, it did not deafen the town alone, but the bleeding eardrums of the town bore witness to the voice of a knight-errant crying out a wordless threat, a promise in a scream.
Both sounds faded as the monster flew straight up, into the sun. The knight fell to her knees, though what further sounds she may have made, what vows and what curses were lost to the waste. The wanderer joined the town in abandoning consciousness.
He awoke some time later in a pool of blood, his and others'. The sun had moved west by two hours, and a dark silhouette was still casting a visible shadow. The knight, still armor clad though once again without helmet or gloves, knelt to the side consulting an ancient runic tome.
The wanderer moved gingerly, expecting pain but finding none and scattering wood shards with a strikingly loud clamor. The knight looked over, commanded him to hold a moment, and pulled rune marked cloths off his chest.
"Runes?" Asked the wanderer, "Do those work?"
"Do they?" she replied. The wanderer considered a moment and grunted an affirmation.
"Will you help me slay this dragon?" It did not sound like much of a question.
"Look what it did to this town."
"Yes. I was there."
"It will not stop."
The wanderer picked himself up and sat leaning against a pair of haphazardly stacked corpses. He shrugged.
"It is a harbinger of doom sent in a vision. It is stronger than humanity."
"Then I hope it eats me last."
The knight gave a start, and then cast a queer look at the wanderer, "Do you jest?"
"Is my sentiment unreasonable?"
The knight clearly did not know how to take that and instead tried a different tack.
"When I slay the dragon, my name will be remembered forever. You too can have that glory."
"I would not be out here if I was looking to be remembered. I would best be well and rightly forgot."
The knight looked down at him, and then around at the ruins as if attempting to stir guilt. Seeing her failure, she stood. "When you continue east, know that you are fleeing from you duty."
"I am not headed east."
"I do not care which direction you flee, coward." She packed the runed cloth and musty tome into the tan leather pack which had once sat on an armored horse. She hefted the bag with ease, though it clearly outweighed both her and her armor. She slipped her steel gauntlets on, fastened her helm to the side of her pack, and hefted both weapons in each hand. She stood for a moment in the sun, a figure of strength, a symbol of power looked upon by none but corpses and a coward. She began to walk, taking the road out of town.
A few minutes later she was joined by the wanderer.
"I thought you were not going to help slay the dragon."
"I am not."
"But you are walking with me."
"I am walking west."
"Towards the dragon."
"Away from the east."
As the sun set upon what had once been a town, two figures upon the horizon could be seen silhouetted by the red sun walking grim and determined beneath a monstrous cloud.