And so, in his last days, the great dragon Gorelka slumbered on his heap of gemstones, surrounded by a sea of gold trinkets. His great red wings rested atop his colossal frame, their now-dull scales reflecting the dim light of the enormous chamber carved deep inside the mountain. And when the human (or halfling or dwarf or whatever it was) crept into the cavern, Gorelka sighed, half opening one eye. With little enthusiasm, he mumbled, “Tremble, ye mortal, for I am the great dragon Gorelka . . . Ravager of the Skies and so forth.”
The human—Gorelka was now confident it was a human, from the stench of the urine that trickled down its leg—hesitated. Gorelka clenched his still-sharp teeth and frowned. The end was near, and he did not wish to prolong it.
So he spread his wings, opened both eyes, and snorted. A thousand years ago, Gorelka would have roared. A blast of molten heat would have blazed forth, his volcanic breath engulfing the cavern in fiery light and illuminating its golden coins, goblets, and diadems, so they sparkled like tiny coruscating stars.
That was then.
“Well?” Gorelka boomed.
The human—a pitiful thing, its expected life span barely eight years, or was it eighty? Gorelka could never remember—stammered and blinked.
“Well?” Gorelka repeated. “Aren’t you going to pose me a riddle, or try to trick me into rolling over so you can find a vulnerable spot?”
They thought they were so original, with their clever little plans. But after four thousand years, a dragon knows all the tricks in the scroll.
The human wiped its hands on its trousers. “Greetings to you, Great Dragon Gorelka! I have come to . . . praise your wisdom and marvels.” Its eyes darted left and right, searching for an exit.
Gorelka croaked a weak chuckle. “Is this really how it ends? After four thousand years, for my final opponent to be so pathetic? You won’t even try to trick me into eating ox hides filled with quicklime, or calf skins stuffed with burning sulfur, or cakes made with pitch, fat, and hair?”
The human stared blankly, uncomprehending.
Gorelka rolled his eyes. “Something to make my stomach burst?”
“Ah,” said the human. “To be honest, I thought I’d focus on praising your stupendousness and magniloquence.”
Gorelka snorted. “Flattery and lies will not save you.”
The human backed away, crouching and tracing its hand over a golden tiara encrusted with diamonds and pearls.
Even fifty years ago, such an offense might have stirred Gorelka to incandescent fury. In his younger days, at the slightest provocation, he would rear on his hind legs, his eyes blazing red. “Tremble, ye mortal!” he’d roar. “For I am the great dragon Gorelka, Ravager of the Skies and Bane of Men!” Once, eons ago, the theft of a single golden chalice from his lair (not even a distinctive or valuable one) had so enraged him, he’d laid the entire countryside to waste.
Now, it all seemed so pointless.
“Never mind,” Gorelka muttered. “Steal it, or don’t. Nothing you do will change what happens.” He heaved a great sigh, folded his wings, and settled his weight back down onto the pile of diamonds, sapphires, and emeralds that formed his bed.
Over four millennia, he’d faced so many enemies. Some were devious, like the scoundrel who’d dug a pit between Gorelka’s cave and the spring where he drank his water, then, when Gorelka lumbered past, stabbed his underside. Others were powerful, like the sky-men who’d hurled thunderbolts until he relented and called the rain.
All of them were dead.
The thief’s feet crunched through the piles of treasure as he scampered out the cavern, but Gorelka didn’t budge.
He yawned, and his heavy eyes drooped. Four thousand years is a long time, even for a dragon. He’d scorched farms and cities, devoured cattle and maidens, and fought heroes and saints beyond number. If this last opponent wouldn’t grant him a worthy fight, so be it. Let the great dragon Gorelka, last of his kind, pass from this world in peace.
In the end, what did it matter? All the treasure he could ever want surrounded him. It was never enough, and it was far too much, until, at last, it was a bitter joke—the charred remains of lusty ambitions that he couldn’t even remember. Now, all Gorelka wanted was nothingness.
Gorelka closed his eyes. He was ready, now, for his struggles to end—for oblivion.
He dragged out one last sulfurous breath. Then his grey heart stopped, and his massive saurian frame burst into crackling green fire. Oily black smoke enveloped the cavern as his scales, bones, and finally innards burnt through.
The great dragon Gorelka, Ravager of the Skies and Bane of Men, was—at last—no more.
Hours passed—perhaps days. The smoke slowly cleared. No one was inside the cave to witness.
But if someone had been there, they’d have seen a great concave depression in a mound of glittering, razor-sharp jewels—a crater left by a monstrous body that formerly called the pile its bed.
At the pit’s center, something small—something bright green and gold—rustled among the gemstones. Its eyes blinked open. For the tiniest moment, its shoulders sagged. It wheezed a raspy sigh—as if to say, Not again.
Then it cleared its fierce little throat, unfurled delicate red membranous wings, and announced with a tinny roar, “Know me, and tremble! For I am the great dragon Gorelka, Ravager of the Skies and Bane of Men!”
Ron Fein is a Boston-area public interest lawyer, writer, and activist. His writing appears in Daily Science Fiction, Sci Phi Journal, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Phantasmical Contraptions and More Errors, and What Would Henry Do? Essays for the 21st Century, Vol. II. Find him at ronfein.com, on Twitter @ronfein, and on Mastodon @[email protected].