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Of Root and Claw

By Bronson FleetPublished 2 years ago 10 min read
Photo by Antonio Alcántara on Unsplash

It was the smell, mostly, that made today different. The Elder, as the beings of his race called themselves, had made this flight a thousand times over ten thousand years, but never in any of them had that putrid aroma reached him from so far away the destination. And never so intensely. So concentrated. Like fetid, rotten, electricity reduced into solution and then gulped down in one swallow.

It was enough to make the great, scaly beast’s eyes water.

But it was not only the smell. It was also the dark gray clouds gathering to the North. So unnatural for this time of year. It was the way the sea churned beneath him, as if the water had grown legs and decided to flee. It was the fear. A wholly foreign feeling to the Elder, but he recognized it for what it was all the same. He could feel it invading his mind, dulling his senses. Filling his stomach with an oily, heavy vapor. Making him full though he had not eaten for days.

It was not becoming of one so great and old as he, and he knew it. So he flew on, ignoring as best he could the thickness of the air and the warning in his bones.

The Elder narrowed his eyes, spying ahead his destination as it slowly came into view. An isle of wide green and yellow. Oddly, today it was more yellow than green. He tilted his wings gently, angling towards the spot he would eventually land.

There would be a welcome of course. A band of tribal drums and sinewed string would play to his arrival, and the younger race of fleshy bipeds would fall to the ground in reverence. It was his favorite part of the ritual. Even better than the squirming, screaming meal that they would offer.

It was their place, after all. They came from the dirt. Soft bellied, they crawled from the primordial mud deep within the vulgar heart of Terra. Hardened over time by nature’s neglect rather than its love.

They were not like the Sky Born, the Elders. Not like him. He, and his kind, had been born of the wind and light of the stars. Fully formed and complete in their moment of conception by the combined wisdom of both forces.

The Elder looked from one of its wide wings to the other, pleased. He slicked his tongue across the daggers that were his teeth and grinned.

I will kill the first one that meets my eye, he thought maliciously.

The idea pleased him so much that the Sky Eel streaking towards him did not catch his attention until it let out a long screech of ear splitting intensity.

The Elder flinched, then resumed his grin. A Sky Eel, though a fierce creature when cornered, was no match for an Elder. At least not one of his stature. In a pack, their sharp claws and jagged teeth might be dangerous to a youngling, but his old scales were far past the point of danger. This one, alone and vulnerable, would make a fine snack.

He opened his maw and turned down slightly to meet the Eel in its arc. A flap of the wings, one more, the beast’s shrieking head was a breath away…

The Elder’s jaw snapped shut and his eyes closed, ready to savor the taste of blood and gore on his tongue. Instead, his teeth came together with a disappointing clack and the taste of acidic air.

He opened his eyes and looked around confused.

Where has it gone?

It was not above, nor to either side. He craned his neck back to look behind but it was not there either.

Finally, he looked down and saw the Eel falling limply through the air towards the sea below as if it had been struck dead by some unseen force. The Elder watched it go until a great cacophony of sound erupted ahead of him.

Looking up, a pack of Sky Eels sped towards him, insane with panic. Clawing at each other in their blind haste. The elder braced himself for a fight. He took a heavy breath, filling himself with fire.

Then, the eels froze, as if struck by a spell. The look in their frightened eyes changed at once from terror to…nothing at all. To emptiness. Like stones the group fell from the heavens, unmoving, towards a watery grave, and the sky was silent once again.

The Elder wavered in that silence. In the air so thick it felt like flying through sap rather than sky. He had seen this before. Heard this silence, long, long ago. The Elder’s mind drifted back to another time. A time when he had so few years to him that even some of the Younger race were older.

It was a red day, the sun weak and far away. A column of the Younger race, men and women, marched up the valley to the Elder stronghold high in the mountains. The sound of their high trumpets ran off the stone walls like scalding water.

“Why have they come?” He had asked his mother from their high perch.

“Because they have forgotten themselves,” she replied with steel in her deep voice.

Then they were there, arrayed before them, and the greatest of the Elder race flew down to meet them with fire and claw, but before a blow was struck, a man stepped to the font of the Younger ranks.

He had never seen a man such as this one, and never since. His head was unbowed and his eyes were wild. When he spoke the ground shook.

“We have come for the return of our kindred. Open your gates and strike off their chains!” A roar went up from behind the man as the Elders bearing down on them turned and fled from the power of his voice, the fire in their bellies put out.

“Return them and be spared!” The man shouted through jagged teeth.

Then, the Elder king, larger and older than any flier that had ever lived, spoke back, though his voice seemed small in comparison.

“Return to your holes! Return to the mud and roots and we shall forget this treachery!”

“We have left the worms behind, and to them, we shall never return,” returned the man king, his face like stone. “If you will give them no freedom in life, then I will give it to them in death.”

The world went quiet then, quiet as the grave. The human king raised his arms and his eyes went white. The mass of humanity behind him began to chant and quiver, though in pain or ecstasy he could not tell. And the smell, it came like a physical presence over the mountain. Electricity, detritus, rot. The birds hiding in the mountain took flight in panic, then dropped dead in the sky. He looked to his mother, and for the first time in his life he saw fear in her. She turned and jumped to the air and fled. Fled that smell. The smell of death.

All at once the bodies of the men and women in the column collapsed in on themselves, exploding in a mist of gore and gristle and pure white light. The light rushed into the human king lifting him from the earth.

Elders all around broke their battle ranks and took to the air. A mass rout. He turned with them and beat his wings to follow his mother. He flew faster then ever in all his life, for though he could no longer see the wizard king, he could feel his presence like a tumor deep within him.

The air was thick, and the smell was thicker, but all sound had gone out of the world save one. He heard the Younger race’s king speak the word, and all had gone black.


He had awoken on a bed of splintered stone, alone. His wing had been ripped in places, and a few of his jagged teeth had been shattered, but against the command of the wizard king, he was still alive.

Eleven thousand years ago, and still alive… he thought as the island drew near, the smell so strong he could almost choke on it. He wanted to turn back. Wanted to flee the smell of death. There would be no retreat on this day though. Never again would an Elder flee the Younger. After the war that followed that day the Younger race did indeed return to the worms. The fliers had taught them a hard lesson with claw and fire until the last of them had retreated to this isle, and a concord had been made. It would not be broken on his account.

But today was different. Of that, there was no doubt. He folded his wings and dove fast towards a landing spot on the high bluffs. It was easy, for the massive trees that usually covered nearly every inch of the isle in green were withered and dead as if a great fire had burned them up. He touched one tall sentinel with a claw and it fell easily, as if its roots had disappeared altogether. It crashed, breaking the unnatural silence around him, then a horn blew loudly from up ahead. It was not a sound of greeting like the one he had expected.

Carefully, he strode forward, the trees to either side falling at his touch. His fear grew within him with every step, but he could not go back. Would not turn away.

“Come out from your pits,” he commanded, fire releasing alongside every word. “If you dare. Like worms fleeing the rain. Like snakes fleeing the mongoose. I hear your proud horns yet I am unafraid. I have come to lay you low!”

Ahead, he spied a hint of movement. Crouching low, he leapt between two massive trees into a small clearing at the center of the wood and at the same time sent a jet of rubied flame into the sky. He had expected the entrance to send the human running, but when he looked down the small human had not moved an inch.

The Elder and the Younger stared at each other for a long moment, the flier stooping low to meet the girl's eye. She reeked horribly. The Elder, his courage fading in the face of that noxious odor, would’ve turned and fled then had the girl not reached out and grabbed a tooth. A bolt of pure energy released from the small child’s hand ran through the Elder’s bones like lightning. He collapsed where he stood, the child of men now standing tall above him.

When his wits were returned, he moved to push himself back to his feet, but the best he could manage was to slide himself backwards a span or two.

“How does it taste, oh great Elder?” The child said, the very air around her rippling with power. “Does the dirt sting your nostrils? Does it stain your glittering scales?” The child took a step forward, and the Elder scraped backward at her approach.

“You have come for an offering, yes? Of flesh and bone. To drink from the blood of the Younger race?” The girl raised her hands and from the decayed forest behind her appeared her kinsmen. Their faces pitted with hunger, but strong all the same. They followed the child forward as the Elder scraped ever backward through the dirt.

“You have come for worship, for service, for slaves!” Her voice had grown so loud now that the Elder felt blood coming from his ears. “Are you surprised at what you have found instead?”

The girl seemed to want an answer to this question, as she paused her stride then and looked down at him, her head tilted.

He would give her no answer. He would not humor this child nor her kin. He was their Elder, and he would remind them the way of things. The things they had forgotten! He flexed a claw and found it strong. He would feign weakness, then, in his moment, strike.

The girl king stood above him, their eyes locked. She raised a hand and one of the taller men behind her strode forward, then knelt at her side.

“I am ready,” the man whispered.

The child lowered her fist and placed it on his forehead, then broke her stare to favor the newcomer with a glance. It was the opening the Elder needed.

All at once, many things happened. The Elder threw himself into the air and breathed in deeply. He felt fire ignite hot as the sun deep in his throat. From the corners of his eyes, he saw the men and the women of the wood turn to flee, but his focus was on the child. He would burn her until there was nothing left but ash. After that, there would be time for the others.

The girl seemed unconcerned though, barely sparing him a glance. Instead, she focused on the man knelt beside her. She smiled sadly, then the man’s body collapsed in on itself, liquified in an instant of incredible gore. White light burst free of the blood and rushed into the girl's hand. Only then did she spare a look for her Elder.

“Die,” She whispered and raised a hand. White light burst from her fingers and the Elder’s fire died in his throat.

The Elder had known this day was different. Unlike any other in so many ways. He could think of nothing else but his mother’s words that day on the mountain. ‘They have forgotten themselves,’ she had said. He could not shake the feeling that his mother had been wrong as the human child approached him and placed a hand gently on his jaw.

“No mother,” The Elder whispered weakly as all light slowly faded. “I think, at last, they’ve remembered.”


About the Creator

Bronson Fleet

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  • Test2 years ago

    This is a damn good entry, and a really interesting take on the challenge. It really left me wanting to know more. Well done!

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