An old, matronly woman came up to his with a plastered smile on her face. She had introduced herself earlier, before offering the best waffles in town, but the wanderer had already forgotten who she was except that she was not the eponymous Auntie.
"Who," he asked, "Makes the second best waffles in town?"
"Were these not good enough?"
"I was only considering how competitive this town is."
"Oh," she said, not quite certain what the word "considering" meant, "Auntie makes the only waffles in town!"
"I thought she made the best waffles?"
"Of course! No one else even gets close!"
"If these are the only waffles, are the not also the worst waffles in town?"
The matronly lady frowned at this, completely unable to follow the logic but certain that some insult was intended. "If you don't like the waffles," she said after considering for a moment, "No one is forcing you to stay and eat them."
"The waffles are fine, Ma'am."
They were fine, if a little sour.
"Aren't they the best you have ever had?"
"They are the best in town." the wanderer said, now trying to detach himself from the conversation.
"Not the best ever?" She asked, with a bit of irritation in her voice.
"I have had waffles back east, but these are a bit different."
"Better?" Her irritation grew, and while the wanderer hardly cared enough to form an opinion he opted to agree with her for the sake of getting rid of her.
It was true, though. The waste had forgotten many things, and many of those things it held on to it recalled only in name. Back east he had once eaten a waffle cooked by one who still remembered the meaning of the word. The potatoes were finely cut and the eggs were only added on the grill afterward so that the potatoes wold come out more thoroughly cooked. The man back east had even poured the thick, meaty gravy on while it was still grilling right before scraping the waffle off the cooking surface.
Since venturing west, the wanderer had come across a few towns that claimed to cook waffles. Not a single one of these dishes were in any way similar to each other. The meal he had almost finished was a base of mashed potatoes with chicken baked together, with some sort of citrus taste that was nearly drowned out by a peculiar, almost sour honey the wanderer had never encountered before.
The wanderer scraped the last bit of honey drenched potato off the plate and licked his knife clean, wiping it on his tan leather vest before sheathing it under the larger one at the small of his back. He stood and looked at the matronly woman for a moment, but then let his shoulders fall and walked out through the open door frame. On the porch he looked to his left towards the still-rising sun and saw a long shadow over the ground. The shadow was affixed at the feet of a figure perhaps five miles out yet who still reflected the light of the sun even at that improbable angle. The angle, of course, was no more probable than the thought that the lone figure walking in that waste had survived her previous encounter.
Even less probable was the fact that she was running. Even after fighting a dragon and wandering an empty waste, she still had the strength to run fast enough to kick up more dirt than a cavalry brigade. The wanderer squinted and could just make out that her arms seemed too long. She was running while encumbered by both her weapons, spear and sword sticking out to either side of her.
A shadow passed over the wanderer. It was not her shadow.
He knew what he would see. He knew he did not want to see it. he knew it was only a few more steps to his horse and he could outpace the demon, assuming the dragon stopped and ate at this town like it had the others. If not, then he might as well be as far west as he could be when flying death fell upon him. But instead he looked up.
Not straight up, it was still a mile or two away just above the morning sun. The shadow had already passed over in the time it took his head to lift, the beast traversing its own tremendous body length in an instant. Its dun green underbelly was visible at this distance, and the creeping deeper green of the back scales could be seen lit up at the very edges of the beast like the thinnest lit crescent of a nearly-new moon.
Though this was the third sighting of the dragon, the wanderer still could not move for watching it. He was not stiff and frozen, no fear appeared in his features, but his eyes were open and unblinking, pupils tight and focused on the beast with the wariness of a rabbit waiting for an eagle to pass. His hands rested lightly on his mismatched pistols, perfectly calm, perfectly still in mind and body.
Beneath the giant figure a trail of dust rose from the feet of the knight keeping superhuman pace. As she closed in her tremendous weariness became evident in her hunched shoulders, her stooped head, her sweat-loosened armor jostling with each tremendous stride. Now only three or four miles out a small roar was audible, an almost human roar of frustration, determination and homicidal fury. The roar was as cracked as the sun baked land beneath her feet and blood flecked freely from her raw throat, but still the roar did not stop. She ran without breathing- no, she ran without inhaling, pushing herself through the power of her runes and the power of her rage so that the dragon would not forget its pursuer.
The knight was only two miles out and closing fast when the dragon reached the east edge of town. It cocked its head sideways to look down and its head was a fourth of the way through by the time it decided to make a meal of these people.
The dragon's wings, stretched to full wingspan in the sky, folded powerfully at the joint atop the torso as it reared back. The tremendous gust of wind did most of the dragon's destructive duty in one blow, flattening the town, launching wood shrapnel and blood spray out for miles beyond the town's radius.
The wanderer braced himself the moment the wings began to close in on themselves, taking to one knee and pulling his pistols from their holsters. He rammed the larger muzzle deep into the hard packed dirt in front of him and the smaller at an angle to his body and clutched the grips tightly. He knelt just to the side of the widest clearing in town, and had the dragon chose to land anywhere else he would have been sent flying. As it was the dust blew away from him and the wave of pressure blasted him down, bruising his kneeling leg without moving it.
When the blast of air subsided he looked up at the dragon. Its wings had folded in and its torso had risen perpendicular to the ground. He saw the bottom of the beasts two clawed feet and trailing out, its tail. With its underbelly covered, the true green hue of the dragon was apparent. The smoky emerald dragon hung there in the air, its flap having stopped all forward momentum and gravity only now daring to request permission to act upon this terrible body. Then it fell.
It plummeted through the air, a mountain of densely packed muscle compressing the air beneath it which couldn't move out of the way as fast as the dragon could fall to earth.
It hit with a visible shock wave which rent the very earth beneath it. The wanderer, only yards away from the nearest foot was dropped and then thrown into the air by the force transmitted through the dirt. No longer braced, he pulled his pistols up to shoulder level in a flash and extended his body, a gunslinger's stance translated in free fall. The instant before his arms reached full extension he squeezed together on a pair of mismatched triggers.
The burst was a dissonant chord propelling two bullets outward and unerringly forward. In the same instant the wanderer saw a spark within the gaping open mouth of the dragon, a spark which fed upon the oxygen rich atmosphere of a dragon's upper respiratory system, catching and spreading to the tip of its jaw and finally expelled with a single tremendous, clipped burst. The larger, slower bullet felt the heat of the flames, melting but holding aerodynamic form behind its smaller cousin.
The nearly parallel paths of the paired munitions met just beneath the center of the dragon's right pupil. The smaller bullet was faster and struck the lens of the dragon's eye first, shattering smooth, crystalline structure, but deforming heavily and falling as a harmless tiny weight into the now freely flowing jelly of the eye. A fraction of a moment later the larger bullet followed, unhindered into the portal and swimming through the eye jelly with nearly the facility it cut past the air. It struck the photo-receptors in the back and burst, still partially molten from passing by the dragon-fire, severing the ocular nerve and embedding tiny shrapnel into the eye.
The dragon choked as the short burst of fire cut off in place of a terrible scream of pain. In the air, the recoil from his shots pushed the wanderer back and set him spinning, his top half rising as he slammed into the dirt behind his fallen horse just as the spurt of flame hit. The horse took the inferno meant for his head and back, but the dragon-fire cooked the back of his legs, fusing pants and flesh.
The wanderer could just smell the burnt meat of his horse and legs as the dragon's scream of pain began, though it cut off just as soon as it started in a monstrous single gag, a click deep within the beast's airways that spread as a visible bubble of air pinging through the town, bursting the exposed blood vessels of the horse before him, then passing through the wanderer as an unearthly force driving his very blood through his body and finally bursting out upon reaching the soles of his feet, popping the bottom skin clean off in his boots.
The click shattered wood and bodies with equal ease out to the edge of town, but the gag itself held such force as to throw the dragon's head up to the sky. The recoil nearly knocked the monster clear over, but in its pain it stiffened its tail and swung it hard against the earth, leaving it teetering on its two clawed heels.
The wanderer lay there and bled as the dragon resumed screaming with even less restraint, emptying the rest of his building sized lungs in half a minute. The knight looked up at this scream and saw the few wispy clouds high in the sky dispersed. A mile out she was buffeted by the various shock waves of the dragon's landing and stumbled a bit, the bellow she had sustained since leaving the previous town breaking off in a spout of blood flecks, but she recovered both her legs and her voice in little time and propelled herself forward, kicking herself against the earth and propelling towards the dragon. In the air she held the steel spear with both hands and straightened her body.
The dragon caught a wink of light flashing off her steel armor in the corner of its last good eye, but paid it no mind in the red haze of its suffering.The beast leaned on the base of its tail as it brought up its left paw to scratch at the now freely bleeding eye. Jelly, blood and meat came away on the claws as the enraged beast cleared the shrapnel from the wound.
The wanderer had finally managed to curl up under the dead horse, leaving his own trail of blood as he pulled his unresponsive legs in where they would be safe from further flame blasts. He picked up his head in time to see the dragon lowering its, cupping the eye with talons held together no longer as five man-sized spikes but as one wall of blades. The dragon inhaled, pulling ambient dust from all around into the center of town, the dust grains shooting into the wanderer's burnt skin. The wanderer heard a tiny spark catch within the dragon and pulled his head down and his body in just in time for the dragon to unleash a fiery gout lasting a full minute.
The dragon shot these flames directly into the ground. The flames scattered in a ring, consuming the flattened structures everywhere except those on the direct left of the dragon. There it had put its left claw on the ground to funnel the flames back up, cauterizing its own eye. The dragon flesh bubbled and hissed as steam escaped from the now empty eye socket.
Through all this the knight reached the end of her half-mile leap, her spear pointed straight at the neck of the dragon, a shining missile of humanity. The dragon's jet of fire wore out, leaving a blackened ruin of the left half of its face charred uniformly. The dragon rose, lifting it left wing to paw it it face, moving almost clinically but for the vengeance burning in its one good eye. Almost as an afterthought it lifted its tail to smack down the soaring knight who crunched to earth cutting off her roar for a second time.
The dragon lifted its head to its fullest extent and stood for a moment, as if considering. In that moment the world was still, the constituent atoms of the town pausing in their ceaseless jiggle for the decision of the monstrous demon. Then with a jerk of its head the dragon sprang into the air, leaping twice its own height before flapping once. The burst of air flung the smoldering horse carcass somewhere behind the wanderer. The dragon flapped again, higher up this time, sending sharp grains of dirt flying against the wanderer's prone form. The dragon flapped again, high enough in the sky that the wanderer felt only a heavy breeze.
The wanderer turned his head so that the right side of his face was collecting dirt and saw a crumpled heap of steel laying in a pile of what was once a building, shaking intermittently. If his eardrums hadn't ruptured, he would hear each bout of shaking accompanied by a sharp crack of bones re-breaking and being set back into their proper place. The crumpled pile broke off mid-shake and raised the knight's head up. The wanderer was too far away to see her suddenly determined expression, but he did see her take up her spear and drive its butt into the rubble.
She pulled herself up and rushed as fast as she could with only one leg- the wanderer could see bone sticking through the steel boot of the other leg- hobbling to the center of town where the dragon had landed previously. She rammed the dull end of the spear four inches into the hard packed crust that was once a road that ran through the center of what was once a town.
As if it had been suggested by the spear, the wanderer turned further, his muscles rebelling against the effort, and looked up to see the dragon falling. It had wrapped itself in its wings and was pointed directly at the spot it had landed previously. The dragon was falling faster and seemed intent not on landing as much as on delivering the greatest possible force to the ground beneath it. It only noticed the spear at the last minute.
Perhaps a dozen yards off the ground the dragon began to unfurl its wings and realign itself but by then it was too close to the ground. The bones at the top of each wing scraped against the ground, scarring the earth and hurling shattered wood and building foundation every which way. Its feet hit the ground first, splayed out too far to support the weight of it's tremendous underbelly.
The dragon hit the spear on a single large scale above its hip and the whole of the lizard's weight fell upon it. As the wanderer watched he saw the spear glow, quickly becoming a blinding light which scoured his retinas even after shutting his eyelids, but neither the steel weapon nor the iron-hard scale gave. The energy from the fall was consumed by the shining spear and given off as light until finally the force was too much and the tiniest of spaces, the place between the spear tip and dragon scale, the collected energies burst forth, flinging the armored warrior over and past the wanderer.
The explosion lifted the dragon the few feet it needed to catch the air and in one powerful wing thrust it flew backwards, east and out of town. The wanderer was thrown back with this and landed atop the hard steel of the knight's greaves. The dragon landed for a moment out past the wreckage of the town, its belly visibly unscarred, and looked upon its work. Perhaps it conceded defeat, perhaps it decided it was done, and perhaps no particular thoughts filled its mind at all. Whatever the case, the dragon rose into the air once more with a terribly enfeebled roar, one which shook the dirt grains on the ground but utterly failed to shake the earth itself, and flew west, morning sun at its back.
The wanderer was kicked in the head by a steel boot.
"Get off me." The knight commanded, voice raw but still hard. The wanderer rolled his shoulders and fell off her leg. She pulled the leg up and tied wrapped a thin strip of cloth around the ankle, just under where a piece of shinbone stuck out.
The haze of screaming nerve endings had not faded for the wanderer, but he was getting used to the pain enough that he could start taking in the world around him. The sight of destroyed buildings and smashed bodies was becoming terribly familiar so he tried to move his head around to see what else there was. His head, however, was much less interested in moving and flat refused. So he lay there, staring at a sign that now read "-st in tow-" that was wrapped in the intestines of his horse. The rest of his horse was out of his field of view, though he assumed it was in no better shape.
Somewhere above him was a soft, diffuse green light originating from behind him. After it subsided he was smacked on the shoulder by a steel gauntlet. A minute later he was smacked again and out of the upper corner of his eye he saw the knight, once again shiny and unscarred, leaning over him. With one hand she rammed a piece of cloth into his ear and clapped his head down in the dirt with the other. A little bit of light and a whole lot of pain later, she removed her hands and cloth.
He heard the hot breeze rolling through what used to be a town. He heard cracking as wood gave in to stresses. He heard the knight.
"You will never walk again like that."
The wanderer lay mute, as if hoping the world would go away if he pretended it wasn't there. The knight smacked him with a steel gauntlet.
"Answer me. I fixed your ear for free. The rest of it costs you."
"Costs me what?" The wanderer spat onto the ground. There was no blood which he took as a good sign.
"You will be bound to me until we have slain the dragon."
A steel gauntlet smacked the wanderer's left leg. He could feel his leg jerk, but somehow there was no sensation at the point of impact. The knight hit him again, higher up and on the right leg. There was sensation this time.
When his screams had fallen into mad gasps, the knight continued.
"You will never walk again. We must hurry or the dragon will get ahead of us."
"The go off, hero." Somehow, despite his pain, the cynicism that the wanderer imbued into the word "hero" made the knight flinch.
Behind him she grimaced and decided.
"Fine," she said, "I would have preferred your aid, but all I need are your weapons." Her hand moved to his hip. As she brushed his waist, his body twisted all on its own, flipping the holster out of her reach. Without the aid of conscious thought the wanderer's arm drew the smaller pistol, rammed the muzzle into the palm of her outstretched hand, and fired. The bullet went clean through and landed to the south of town, becoming the only feature of the southern waste for miles.
The knight sighed and reached into her pack with her good hand. She wrapped another thin cloth around the stigmatized hand. "Kah!" She barked and the cloth glowed a soft green. When she unwrapped her hand the wanderer could see that her gauntlet had been repaired and could infer that her hand had also been healed.
He grumbled at her, not quite a growl, and said, "You can heal my legs?"
"No, but the runes can."
"And in return I will slay your dragon."
"You need only assist." The arrogance in her voice, even after three failed attempts, was astounding.
He grumbled again, considering. He continued to grumble for a bit even after deciding for the sake of appearances. "Fix me." He said.
"No." She said.
He looked at her, his features completely neutral, the face he would have if all his muscles were cut from his skin. It said nothing and asked nothing.
"You will betray me." She explained. She reached into the pack and pulled out two fat, woolen cloths. "These will allow you to walk, but they will not heal you." She pointed to her own ankles with identically marked runes, "They will also keep you from slowing me down."
The knight pulled out her broadsword and cut deep into the flesh of his right thigh.
"Damnation descend, wretch." The wanderer shouted, emotions knocked free by the unexpected bite of steel. She smacked his face with her steel gloved hand, "You can't keep up with me if your legs hurt. Now you can't feel either of them."
She was correct, neither leg responded to anything and gave no indication other than visual that they were still even there. Just below his right hip hurt, but it was the known pain of a blade.
She ripped the bottom inch of his pants legs off his skin, letting the charred pus ooze out for a moment. When the new runes were tied securely she read them out, "Kas Dan!", and the two on her legs glowed golden along with the ones on his. When the glow subsided he tried to move his legs. Nothing moved.
"By wanting to."
The wanderer scowled and simply thought about getting up. His legs responded, not as body parts under his control, but no differently than if they had been normal legs. He still had no feeling below his hips, yet stood solid. The mysteries of Northern magic eluded him as he stood upon burnt legs.
"Bit Yisit!" She called. The runes gave a tiny burst of golden light and grew dull. The wanderer fell from his useless legs to the ground. A rock split his lip.
"I will heal your legs only after the dragon is dead. If you abandon our quest before then I will annul the runes." She called them back into life and headed off after the dragon at a speed more suitable for a racehorse than a human.
The wanderer thought about getting up and found himself standing once again. No amount of deliberate moving of his legs produced any effect, but thinking that they should be moved accomplished the same task. After a few halting but solid steps he thought that he should catch up to the knight. With merely that thought he burst out of town, leaving the wreckage behind him in a flash. He caught up to the knight a minute later and they ran west behind a dragon.