Runic stared down from the cliff, staring at a dragon.
The creature was enormous, seeming to stretch from one side of the bay to the other. It was gray blue and looked roughly textured, though Runic had never touched it. What stood out to him was that the name was a lie: it looked nothing like a dragon.
It looked like a whale, long and sinewy, with fins all along its side. Unlike a whale, it was thinner—proportionately—than any whale could physically be. Its body didn’t narrow enough near the head to be called a neck, though there was a slight taper. The head alone was probably twice as big as that of a blue whale, boasting an eye taller than Runic was standing up. The head looked crustacean, with shell-like fragments somehow held together to form a face—were those pieces armor? It almost looked fractured, Runic thought. The back of the head came up in a bony frill, extending up and outwards like some prehistoric crown. It had a single-boned jaw, identifying it as a mammal, and trailing from the whale/dragon’s jaw were antennae, similar to those of a lobster. These antennae, most likely used to feel and sense movement around them, trailed almost to the end of its body, swaying in the currents as the herculean creature moved through the water, as close to the shore as possible.
Runic stared down at the “dragon” still wondering why anyone called it that.
It just looked like another species of whale. A strange one, sure, but not a dragon. Runic took another moment to admire the strange mammal, watching as it slowly steered its massive body eastward to avoid a large sandbar. The dragon was slow, but its movement was steady, and Runic knew he had to get to the boat now in order to catch up to it.
To some, this creature was a god, the object of their pathetic prayers. To others, its presence was a bad omen: what terror could have scared such a strong beast into this northern ocean?
And to others still, the dragon was simply an animal. An animal that could be killed like any other.
Runic turned away from the cliff edge, following the stony trail around outcroppings of rock, down crusted mossy slopes, and eventually to the water’s edge, where the crew was waiting aboard the boat. It was a nondescript sailboat, brown wood with two large sails. Captain had never bothered to paint the boat, how it looked mattered infinitely less than the functionality of it.
Runic jumped off a short rocky overhang to land in the sand. His feet sank almost an inch into the sand at the impact, and Runic shook the sand off his boots as he walked to the boat. He reached the side and gripped the metal bars that made a ladder up the side of the boat, hoisting himself up and swinging into the ship.
Two other men were on the deck, Lyreth and Captain, both sitting on empty crates. Captain raised a hand in greeting, speaking from across the boat.
“Runic. The creature?”
“On its way. We need to set sail.” Runic glanced questioningly around the deck. “Where’s the rest of the crew?”
The captain waved a hand dismissively. “They all left. Abandoned us for Jag’s crew. They’ll be back once the hunt is over,” Bitterness seeped into the last few words.
Anger flushed through Runic. They had left? Runic tried to keep his anger hidden as he replied .
“So we only have three to man our ship?”
Lyreth shook his head, speaking in the half-drunken tone that was normal for him.
“No, Ter and Orten are below.” He sighed. “At least we have five.” He stood, walking across the deck and disappearing into the cabin.
Runic stepped over to the hatch and opened it, calling to the men below. Both emerged and the five men aboard the ship set sail. The wind caught the sails as the ship found a current to ride, stretching taut. After a moment of sailing, Captain pointed in front of the boat, eastward.
Runic looked, and saw more ships than had ever come on one hunt before.
Ships were coming out of every inlet along the waving coast, tens of ships, each with at least two sails. These ships were all sailing for the dragon.
Runic could do nothing but stare at the majesty of this hunt. He had hunted before, but this was more ships than seemed practical—were these ships all necessary?
Captain joined Runic, watching the ships as they sailed toward the massive quarry.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Captain said quietly.
Runic just nodded.
Captain hunched over, squinting at another boat, then pointed at it.
“That’s Jag’s boat. The three-sailed one.”
Runic saw it. It was an impressive ship, nothing to laugh at. It looked nearly twice as big as Captain’s, and while it looked slower, it was almost definitely stronger. It was a newer build, with far more features. Even across the distance, Runic could see some of Jag’s crew on the deck, readying for the hunt. Harpoons were being distributed, and ropes checked for tangles. Everything had to go smoothly if they were going to bring down the dragon, and each ship would have to do its part.
Runic turned away from the edge.
“Ter, gather the harpoons. Lyreth, check the ropes. You know the drill.”
They didn’t answer, hurrying to complete the tasks. Runic tried to convince himself that the only thing that mattered was that they bring down the beast. Still, another part of him screamed that they had to outdo Jag’s crew; had to prove that Captain’s crew could make it. That they weren’t underdogs.
A flare of violet light caught Runic’s eye, coming from one of the scout ships.
“Captain, the scouts are heading in. Their lights are lit.”
The scouts, faster ships, were meant to go further out, to the other side of the dragon, checking for obstructions or anything that might change the dragon’s course. Captain’s boat would have been a scouter, if it was at least a year newer. As it was, the boat was one step above a scouter ship, falling at the bottom of the chain of whaling ships. The fastest whaler—but also the weakest—Captain’s crew had always seemed to fall short of any praise.
Now was Runic’s chance to change that, to show those deserters that a small ship could succeed.
All he had to do was break a rule. The one rule: weakest take the rear.
Runic jumped into action, scuttling up the mast into the crow’s nest, where the light was kept. It was a gem, about as big as Runic’s head, bright orange for a minor whaling ship. Tapping it rapidly five times, runic lit it, signaling to all the ships that they were moving in.
Orten, down on the deck yelled up at Runic.
“Runic, what fool thing do you think you’re doing now?”
Runic paused in tying the rope that secured the light.
“I’m killing a dragon, now grab a harpoon.” Runic looked at Orten, and he was smiling. Taking greater confidence, Runic shouted loud enough to be heard below. “We’re going in!”
Captain burst out of the cabin, confusion plain on his face. “What—” He paused, and a new conviction came over his face as he realized the opening before them. An empty path to the dragon’s head.
He raised his hands to his mouth. “We’re going in!” he bellowed.
The wind caught the sail with more force as Captain turned the ship a smidge. Sailing directly at the mark, the ship sped up, passing another small boat. Even as Captain steered toward the opening, a large ship moved into the empty space, blocking the route to the head. Their light, red for a four-sail, was flashing. Desist. Stop.
Runic wanted to speed ahead, to at least try to keep moving in, but disobeying a direct order would only get Captain in trouble. Captain signaled to stop before Runic could, and it struck Runic that he had taken over again. Even if Captain had liked the idea, he had still made a decision without permission, and if something had happened, it would have been his fault.
The expedition continued as if Runic hadn’t ever rebelled, and the ships closed in on the dragon. Runic found himself flushing with guilt, though there was no good reason.
Red light flared from the front of the hunt, and each ship in turn lit their lights. Every ship’s light was alive now, and the hunt was on.
Runic grabbed a harpoon, running to the leeward rail, as Captain steered the ship toward the dragon. The ship neared the gray mass, and Runic was surprised at how much bigger it was up close. The tail must have been ten meters wide, almost as wide as the ship! How would you kill something so massive?
A horn blared from one of the leading ships, and the rest of the red-lights added their own trumpets to the call. Watching what they did next, Runic saw ropes—attached to harpoons—flying over the dragon’s back, coming with a thud to rest in the wood of the ships on the other side of the beast. Those harpoons had gone clear over the beast, how was that possible? Did the reds have harpoon launchers of some kind?
Orten, standing a little distance away from Runic, threw his harpoon over the dragon’s tail, and somehow it lodged in the side of the ship across from them. Instantly the crew of that ship reached down to grab whichever harpoons had fallen in reach. Runic tested the weight of the harpoon in his hand, nervous. Orten was strong, everyone knew it. Could Runic even throw that far?
Runic threw the harpoon. It flew over the dragon’s tail, losing speed as the rope behind it stretched further. The wind threatened to blow it off course. Then it hit, not on the side of the ship, but past the railing, on the deck. Surprise filled Runic and he turned to get another harpoon. Orten threw two more, while runic only managed one more.
Ter was grabbing the harpoons that the other crew had thrown, securing them to the deck so they wouldn’t pull free.
The horns blared again. Runic hadn’t even noticed when they had stopped. The ship across from Captain’s was grabbing the harpoons that Runic and Orten had thrown, stabbing them down into the dragon’s blubbery skin. Runic followed suit, thrusting downwards with all the strength he had. His harpoon sunk deep into the creature, hiding the hooked spearhead entirely. Runic couldn’t help but shudder at the feeling. No whale should ever be that soft.
This isn’t a whale, Runic reminded himself.
Again the horns blared, and Orten thrust the last harpoon into the dragon’s hide. Then the ships turned away. All of the ships.
Each crew had thrown harpoons across to another ship, then stabbed them into the dragon. Now, as the ships turned away, the ropes pulled taut and the hundreds of harpoons raked across the creature’s back, opening blood-red wounds along its body.
A sound reached Runic’s ears, a mixture of a scream and a roar, and it took only a moment for Runic to realize that it was the dragon making the noise.
Most of the harpoons had been pulled free of the creature’s skin, and the crews were reeling them in. The water around the ship was turning red as the blood poured out of the wounds.
The dragon moved, trying to dive deeper, but the ships had driven it too close to the shore for it to get very deep.
Its tail came up out of the water, showing not two, but four massive flukes rising above Runic’s head. The tail slammed down, hitting the water with a louder sound than seemed possible. A froth of bubbles foamed over the water as it rippled, and the boat tipped as the small wave swept under it. Runic stumbled, barely managing to keep his balance.
The ship, which had been right next to the gray monstrosity, was no longer within throwing distance. The tail rose up again and slammed down. Water sprayed in every direction, and Runic was instantly drenched. The beast was fighting, trying to get away.
Again, the whale lifted its tail. This time it slammed down at an angle, tipped away from Captain’s whaler. The next wave was far stronger, and the boat rocked precariously. Someone screamed, and Runic looked frantically around for the source of the cry.
Orten was looking windward, to the side of the ship facing away from the dragon, panic clear on his face. Runic realized with a shock that Ter was no longer on deck.
Captain yelled something, but his words were drowned out as the dragon’s tail slapped against the ocean’s surface. Froth sprayed everywhere, running into Runic’s eyes and blinding him. He raised a hand and cleared his eyes. Looking ahead, the other boats seemed to be having similar problems, though none as intense. Their ships were bigger, but Runic didn’t have time to feel bitterness.
The ships had shifted, and now the dragon had a wide area to move around in. It turned away from the shore, and its bony frill thrust its way out of the water as its head rose. Apparently the dragon didn’t mind slamming its head against the water, because now it did just that. The ships drifted away again, opening a bigger gap for the dragon’s escape.
Horns blew, and the bigger ships steered toward the monster again. Their harpoons flew again, lodging deep in the skin. This time they only came from one side, windward, and when the ships turned away they pulled at the dragon, straining at the weight.
Runic joined the action, grabbing a harpoon of his own. Making sure its rope was tied securely to the ship, Runic stabbed it deep into the creature.
Almost as soon as he had stabbed it downward, the tail lifted. Runic let go of the harpoon in his surprise, watching as the rope stretched upward. The tail lifted too high, and the barbed spear slipped out of the dragon’s skin. The harpoon whirled downward, coming down with a thud in the wet wood of the deck only a foot away from Runic’s feet.
The tail slapped the water again, and the wave made runic stumble;. This time he fell, and Runic rolled like a log as the ship rode the large riples. The railing stopped his roll, keeping him from falling onto the ocean. Runic whispered a curse as he stood again, then stumbled as yet another wave shook the whaling ship. His elbow slammed against the deck as he fell again, and Runic yelped at the stabbing pain.
Trumpets screamed from somewhere, and Runic looked up in alarm.
The ships ahead were turning leeward—away from the shore and toward the dragon—to avoid a sandbar. Treacherous rocks jutted up from the shallows. Captain tried to steer away, but the massive tail was in the way, lifted again and again. The wind seemed to pick up, even as time seemed to slow. Runic looked around, trying to find a way out of the funnel they had created for themselves.
Orten heaved at a rope, pulling the sail to catch more wind. The ship whipped forward, picking up speed. Perhaps if they could hurry forward, they could slip between the whale and a larger ship. Alongside them, the herculean creature bellowed, a terrifying sound.The ship ahead of them turned, blocking the gap Captain was heading for. Runic whirled to look at Orten, still holding the sail taut, arm muscles bulging.
Runic tried to shout to Orten, tried to scream, but Orten couldn’t hear. The commotion was spreading throughout the fleet, somehow the dragon was causing trouble for all the ships.
Runic tried to stand. He had to tell Orten to stop. Runic pushed himself to a kneeling position, almost collapsing as searing pain lanced up his arm. He cursed. If any of his bones had broken…
A shadow covered the sun, and Runic looked up to see the tail raised again. He glimpsed the whale’s underside, seeing a bony, spine-like ridge, traveling to the end of the tail. It whipped to the side now, coming down toward the ship. Runic scrambled away again, crawling as best he could. His arm exploded with pain, and he almost screamed as he collapsed onto the deck face-first.
An ear-shattering crash split the air, and the ship slowed considerably. Then it started swiveling, turning toward the dragon. Runic looked at the origin of the sound.
The tail had slammed onto the deck, smashing the railing, and the four flukes lay spread over the wooden planks. Fear chilled Runic as the ship tipped, pulled down by the weight of the colossal tail.
Runic flipped over, rolling again, and he couldn’t do anything to stop his movement. He hit the end of the tail, somehow finding himself on one of the flukes. The dragon chose that moment to slide its tail off the ship, and Runic felt dread well up inside him. Captain’s small whaler bucked as the weight slipped off, rocking more dramatically than ever before. Runic plunged with a scream into the water.
Runic kicked his feet, stroking his arms to swim, grimacing as his shattered elbow flared with pain. He settled for kicking, trying desperately to resurface. His head his something hard, whether it was the boat or the dragon, Runic couldn’t tell.
The sounds of the hunt were gone now, distant and dim. Runic felt his lungs screaming for air, felt the water flood in as his mouth pried itself open. He struggled frantically, disregarding his broken arm. The pain was duller now, but it still wouldn’t move.
Another dragon scream echoed through the sea, and underwater it was a haunting noise. Still not like a dragon, Runic thought through a haze.
Darkness flooded Runic’s mind like so many droplets of water, and the noises and pains of the hopeless hunt faded into nothing.
Author Notes: So, this has just been sitting in my google docs, waiting to be edited. I wanted to edit it before posting it on here, but I'm impatient. Also, I'd really like negative feedback. I would love to hear what's wrong with this, and I don't want to hear that it's perfect, because I KNOW it isn't.