Sharp Stick
By: Walter G. Esselman

The young dragon, Pavataro, heard the crackling fire. Smoke rolled across the ceiling of the cave. Glowrocks, which were embedded in the ceiling, sent shafts of color throughout the gray smoke. The dragon, who was both relieved and nervous, took a deep breath, and walked around the corner.

Before a small fire, there was a young boy with dark, unkempt hair and bright orange eyes. The boy, Gideon, stuck the end of a sharpened spear in the fire for a moment, and then he took it out.

"I read in a book that if you put a stick in a fire you can harden it," said Gideon without looking up. "Makes it harder to break."

"Um, Lunchmeat," said Pavataro. "What're you doing down here?"

"What are you doing down here?" countered Gideon hotly.

"We should go back," said Pavataro as he looked around nervously. "This place is not safe."

"Really?" asked Gideon.

"You know that this is a path down to the bug caves," said Pavataro. "If one of them comes along…"

"Underneath Dragon's Hearth, there is a warren of tunnels filled with bugs of all sizes," said Gideon. "Some of them are big, but others are not-so-big. The trick is not biting off more than you can chew."

"And I've chewed a lot of bugs," murmured Pavataro, who was momentarily distracted by food.

"I read Tanizu's ‘Dining Below: 1001 ways to eat a bug' for class," said Gideon. "Did you?"

We need to go back," said Pavataro urgently. "Your mother's going to be worried."

"My adoptive mother is one of the best hunters in the Hearth," said Gideon. "She always brings food home."

The dragon Miravalla had adopted Gideon when he was a baby, and accidentally weaned him on her milk, which had had some unintended consequences.

"If this is about earlier…," started Pavataro.

Gideon held up his spear and blew out a small fire on it.

"I don't know what you're talking about?"

"Those guys are idiots," said Pavataro.

"How many people have you told, that you are afraid to fly?" asked Gideon in a casual voice.

The dragon froze.

"N…no one but you," gulped Pavataro.

"Do you know how many people I've told?" asked Gideon.

Pavataro's mouth started to open, but he could not speak. If word got out that he was afraid to fly, Pavataro would be a laughingstock. He would get teased worse than Gideon.

"No one," said Gideon slowly, and Pavataro deflated in relief.

"That's why you're here, isn't it?" asked Gideon. "To cover your butt."

"No," said Pavataro, but a little too quickly. "I…I was worried about you. Um, we really should go."

"They said I was like a baby bird waiting for food," said Gideon through gritted teeth.

"It was stupid…," started Pavataro.

"You laughed too," said Gideon. "And you still call me by my schoolyard nickname 'Lunchmeat'."

"Just for fun," said Pavataro.

"It wasn't fun when they were teasing me," said Gideon. "So now I hunt."

"Why do you have to hunt? Not everyone hunts," said Pavataro.

"Right, me and the old dragons whose flame has turned to smoke," said Gideon.

"It…you still can't go down there," said Pavataro. "You'll get killed."

"My mother risks her neck for me, and the rest of the clan," said Gideon. "The Clan of Embers. My clan. They gave me a name."

Gideon stood up proud and strong, and he raised his spear.

"I am Miragideon," he shouted, and then he noticed the odd look on Pavataro's face. "What?"

"Do you mean to step in the fire?" asked Pavataro, who was looking at Gideon's leg, which was being consumed in flames.

"Yikes!" squeaked Gideon, which ruined his heroic moment.

*

"My mom's going to kill me," said Gideon as he and Pavataro moved deeper into the bug caves.

"You're just lucky that you didn't get hurt," said Pavataro. "Or, I'd be dragging you back home like a lost kitten."

"Oh that, it is nice being immune to fire, especially when the potatoes are done" said Gideon dismissively. "No, what I'm really worried about is these pants. Mom bought them special for me."

"Maybe you'll get lucky and die down here," said Pavataro.

"Hopefully," sighed Gideon.

Suddenly, there was a skittering noise from the caves ahead, and Gideon and Pavataro tensed. Crouching low, Gideon aimed his spear towards the dimly lit cave. But no sound followed the first one.

"I really think we should running away," said Pavataro, almost pleading.

Slowly, Gideon moved into the next part of the cave system.

"Fine Lunchmeat," grumbled Pavataro. "Just ignore me."

After vacillating for a moment, the young dragon followed with a sour expression. There were not any pre-cut glowrocks in the ceiling. And the few naturally forming glowrocks did not give off that much light.

Gideon stopped near the middle of the cave.

"Maybe it was underground water?" murmured Pavataro as he halted next to the boy.

There was a noise behind them. Something huge collided with them sending the boys sprawling in opposite directions. Gideon skidded across the floor losing his spear. He dug his fingers into the dirt stopping his momentum. Getting his feet underneath him, he dived for his spear.

Picking it up, he barely had time to register the shape coming towards him. He held up the spear lengthwise and giant mandibles bit the weapon in half.

Falling back, Gideon saw the bug before him as it reared up on fifty legs and hissed. The beast was nearly twelve feet long. The bug dove for him and Gideon jumped aside whacking it with one of the spear pieces. Turning, he jabbed with the spear end now only two feet long.

The bug suddenly cried out, and it turned to see Pavataro biting at its hind end. With sharp stab of the spear Gideon hit the bug in the thorax but the point just glanced off.

"It's armored too!" cried out Gideon.

"You sure know how to pick them!" growled Pavataro.

The bug whipped around and twenty legs picked up Pavataro. It threw the dragon across the room until he slammed into a cave wall.

Gideon rushed in and, using the bug's legs like a ladder, shot up the side of the monster. He stabbed at its neck and a sickly green ochre came from the wound. The bug swung its head, and the side of its pincer knocked the boy away.

Bumping across the ground, Gideon came to a halt. He was still holding the shortened spear. Slowly, the boy started to rise, but his legs buckled. His knees hit the ground painfully. Looking up, he did not see the bug. Grimacing in pain, he slowly rose to his feet.

"Lunchmeat?" called out Pavataro from the far side of the cave. "You dead yet?"

"Not yet," replied Gideon.

"Pity," muttered Pavataro. "Where is it?"

"Dunno," said Gideon, and then he saw Pavataro's face turn to shock. "Pav?"

The bug erupted from the ground behind Gideon. Grabbing the boy with its pincers, the bug threw Gideon straight into the air. The boy spun until he began to fall right into the bug's waiting mouth, who was going to swallow him whole.

"Snailburgers," said Gideon. He brought the shortened spear in front of him holding it lengthwise with both hands. The bug snapped its teeth shut after Gideon dropped into its mouth.

The pointy end of the spear dug in, wedging its mouth partially open and driving the hardened tip right through the bug's brain pan. Gideon's legs swung underneath him as he hung from the spear like it was a branch on a tree.

After a moment, a mad grin came across his face. He was not dead.

Something grabbed his boot and tugged him urgently downward. Tentacles from inside the bug's throat slithered around his boot. The boot started to smoulder, filling the bug's mouth with the smell of burning leather.

"Ow, Ow, Ow!" cried Gideon. "Pav! Help!"

Pavataro ran over and looked through the bugs long, pointy teeth like they were bars of a cell. Inside the mouth, Gideon tried to pull his feet up, but to no avail.

"Hey, the scrum is still alive," said Pavataro conversationally.

"Oh, you mean the tentacles that are trying to eat me?" demanded Gideon sarcastically.

"Yeah, those. That's the bit that helps digest the bug's food, and it tastes delicious. Smooth and spicy going down!"

"And it's trying to digest me!" cried out Gideon. "Get me outta here, you big idiot!"

"Oh, sure," said Pavataro. "That would probably be a good thing."

And the dragon disappeared from view.

Gideon felt a burning sensation now inside his boot. He squirmed against it, but the tentacles held him fast sending his heart rate soaring.

"Pav?" said Gideon, but there was no answer. Oh-oh, he thought. "Just kidding about the idiot thing." There was no sound from outside in the cave. His ankle was really starting to hurt. "Pav?" Gideon tried to pull himself higher and there was a crackling noise from the stick. He dipped just a bit. "Mother of Bees."

A shadow shot towards the bug's teeth and something hit it hard. Pieces of tooth shattered inward making Gideon flinch, and Pavataro pulled back the rock in his hand to hit the teeth again. Breaking a hole in the bug's mouth, he reached in and grabbed Gideon. The boy came a little bit, but then he stopped.

"The tentacles," said Gideon in a panicked voice.

"I know," said Pavataro with a pensive look on his face.

"Hurry!" said Gideon.

"You are resistant to fire, right?" asked Pavataro.

"Um, why?" asked Gideon.

Pavataro let out a bright flame that filled the inside of the bug's mouth. The tentacles shrivelled up and Pavataro pulled Gideon out of the fire. The boy hit the ground and rolled to smother out the flames. When the fire was out, he looked down at himself. The scraps of clothes that had survived the fire were now very dirty.

"My Mom's going to kill me," moaned Gideon.

Pavataro plucked a cooked tentacle off of Gideon's boot and ate it.

"Yum, victory never tasted so good," grinned Pavataro.

"Miragideon!" cried out a panicked voice from the tunnels. "Gideon!"

"Mom!" called out the boy.

Gideon's adopted mother, Miravalla, ran into the cave. The large red dragon dropped next to Gideon and nudged him with her nose.

"Are you okay?" asked Miravalla desperately. She got up and practically danced around the boy while checking for injuries.

"I'm fine Mom," said Gideon with exasperation.

"Oh, thank the Goddess," said Miravalla as she carefully picked up her boy. He struggled some, but not too hard.

"Mom!" whined Gideon.

"He's fine," said Pavataro, but Miravalla whirled on him.

"And you!" snapped the red dragon. "You should be ashamed of yourself. You and those boys teasing him, and now see where he is."

"Mom!" said Gideon with more force this time. He struggled out of Miravalla's arms and she let him down. For a moment, he wobbled a bit, but then he held his own. "Pav wasn't one of the boys teasing me."

"He wasn't," asked Miravalla doubtfully as she peered at her son. Behind her, Pavataro looked at him in surprise.

"And look at the damn big bug we caught," grinned Gideon pointing at the bug. Miravalla took a moment to look over at the creature half out of the cave floor. The end of Gideon's sharp stick stuck out of the top of its head. A little smoke wafted up out of its mouth.

"That is a big bug," agreed Miravalla.

Gideon walked over to Pavataro and slapped him on the back.

"And we caught it," grinned Gideon.

"You know I'm going to ground you until you're eighty," said Miravalla reasonably.

"I know Mom," said Gideon, but he did not lose his smile.

THE END

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