Welcome back to Part 6 of Dragon Bait. If you missed any of Burning: Dragon Bait (Part 1), Dragonflame: Dragon Bait (Part 2), Guilt: Dragon Bait (Part 3), Ishafal: Dragon Bait (Part 4), Joust: Dragon Bait (Part 5) make sure you check them out first!

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Varik stripped off his shirt, and wrapped it around the box. Although still warm through the cloth, it made the heat bearable.

A shadow fell over him as he adjusted the wrappings. His hands stilled, and he lifted his eyes.

The dragon clung to the cliff face, head down. Its tail coiled upwards out of sight, and into the rocks. Deep red scales covered the head. When the wings lifted for balance, the undersides shone a burnished gold, deepening to red at the edges. Baleful black eyes nailed him to the path.

The metal burned Varik’s hands through the fabric, and he took a step backwards, juggling the box. His foot kicked a stone, and it clattered over the edge. Varik froze. What now? If anyone had ever met a dragon face to face before, they’d not lived to tell the tale.

The dragon cocked its head. Why can I sense you in my mind, little man? 

Varik put a hand to his ears, mouth falling open. The deep voice rang inside his head, as clear as a struck bell. ‘You’re telepathic?’ And clearly intelligent, though he held his tongue on that point.

The dragon gave a horrific parody of a grin, revealing huge fangs Varik preferred not to have seen. A clawed foot, sizable enough to crush a human head, shifted its hold on the cliff face. Obviously.

‘Uh, yeah.’ A smile oozed onto Varik’s face. He switched the box to the other hand to ease the growing heat. 

You’re not Ishafal. What are you, little man? The dragon’s grin, horrific though it was, turned into a frown that was worse. I can feel the shape of your mind. You are… sad. And… guilty? 

If anything, the frowned deepened, and Varik almost stepped back again, but there was nothing but open air behind him. 

Are you guilty, little man? A dangerous stillness gripped the dragon. Its tongue flickered out, like a snake tasting the air. I don’t like guilty men. 

‘Of allowing my sister and nieces to die, yes.’ He made the admission boldly, not knowing the right answer, and so opting for the truth. What did it matter if the dragon decided to eat him anyway? ‘I was too busy hunting down treasure.’

The dragon cocked its head, but reading that scaly face was an impossibility. Treasure is important, though perhaps not so important as to abandon one’s kin. 

‘I agree.’

The dragon’s head slithered closer, the nostrils flaring. It nosed the cloth-wrapped box in his hands, apparently uncaring of, or insensitive to the heat. What is this? 

‘Treasure.’ Varik couldn’t keep the bitterness from his voice. ‘And one that killed my family.’

The dragon’s head reared back, the pupils of its eyes dilating and its wings flaring. The gust of disturbed air blew Varik’s hair about his face. 

Cesium! That is not treasure, no treasure any man wants. No wonder your family died if you were taking that rubbish home to them. 

Varik stiffened, and blinked away tears. ‘I didn’t! The Ishafal did that, after it stole this from Athelstone. I am taking it back, for safekeeping.

The dragon hesitated, half-folding its wings. For safekeeping? I do smell Siren and Fury magic… 

‘For safekeeping.’ 

Foolish man. You are no treasure hunter. What you do is a sacrifice for others. It is tragic that your family died while you fulfilled this great duty, but the blame is not on your shoulders. 

‘What? It is. I wasn’t there to save them, to-’ To what, to stop an Ishafal? Did I have a dragon in my  pocket then, too? 

The dragon prodded him with its nose, and Varik clutched at a horn to keep his balance. Realising what he’d done, he let go again, but the dragon turned its head, lifting him away from the precipice. He fell back to the rocky path.  

You are not to blame. I will not eat you. Which is fortunate, as you look rather stringy. 

Varik laughed, hysteria edging the grim mirth. A deep rumbling came from the dragon. A growl? No, the dragon laughed as well, scaly lips peeling back from great teeth. Varik laughed harder, until the hysteria turned into actual amusement. A dragon – a dragon– had actually absolved him of guilt, and then made a joke about eating him!

The dragon lowered its head, extending one leg. I will carry you to Athelstone, though. This returning the cesium to its guardians is noble indeed. I would be pleased to ensure you suffer no further interruptions. 

Varik looked at the inviting leg, his stomach in knots. Could he really trust the creature not to make a snack of him? He swallowed hard. Then again, it was more than clear that the dragon would have cooked him up for a treat if it hadn’t liked his intentions for the cesium.

Staring up into night-black eyes, Varik sketched a deep bow. ‘I would be honoured.’

Grief still nestled in the back of his mind, a fragile egg waiting to crack open, but the guilt, like the need for revenge, had been laid to rest. Hitching the hot box uncomfortably in the crook of his arm, Varik reached up and began to climb. 

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**AUTHOR’S NOTE: This fiction piece is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge and has not been to an editor.**

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