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art by Stephen James Kiniry

The Quest Unusual

David Steffen lives in a mythical land guarded by an army of vicious attack penguins, where dogs outnumber the people and pigs sleep in the bathtubs. You can find his fiction at Bull Spec, Digital Science Fiction, Pseudopod, and Brain Harvest, among others. Besides his writing, he is also a software engineer, and the editor of Diabolical Plots nonfiction zine, where you can find interviews and reviews of all things in the realm of speculative fiction, including reviews of Daily Science Fiction (those written by Frank Dutkiewicz). Find it at DiabolicalPlots.com.
Matthew spent half the morning removing rocks from the western fields before he felt the first rumblings through the soles of his feet. He looked up to see a cloud of dust moving quickly down the dirt road in his direction. The ground shook harder and harder as it approached until he had to crouch just to keep from falling over.
It stopped on the point of the road nearest to him, and when the dust cleared, he saw a dragon bigger than his house. It was covered in a thick layer of road dust, which made it seem all the more real. Stranger than that, shields of every shape and size were strapped over every inch of its body. A belt spanned its waist with a lance in a scabbard, and a huge black cauldron served as a helmet, the handle tucked securely under its chin.
"Would you kindly direct me to Lord Volpus's hall?" the dragon rumbled in a voice that might have sounded haughty if it weren't accompanied by a deep grumble from the dragon's belly.
"What business do you have?" Matthew asked, wondering if it would be wrong to give the dragon directions.
"I am known as Sir Hugh, and I am seeking employment. If I find and slay a dragon my courageous deeds will be told from land to land, and my name will live forever in glory."
Matthew said nothing; he was unsure what he could say to the towering beast.
"Well, peasant? I am weary from the road and I long for a bath and a bed before setting out again."
"But you're a..." The word stuck in his throat. Did the dragon really think it was a knight? Didn't it notice how it towered over Matthew?
"Yes?" The dragon leaned its head down close to him, and that close, the smell of scorch and rotting meat on its breath made Matthew weak at the knees. Its tongue flicked out, tasting the air between them. The gleam in its eye seemed to say it knew exactly what it was. Matthew could give the dragon directions, knowing that his lord might be killed as a result. But any other action would likely end with Matthew in the dragon's belly. At least Lord Volpus had soldiers to protect him.
"My lord's keep is that way." He pointed to the west. "A half day's walk as the crow flies."
"I thank you." The dragon bowed deeply and headed west. Matthew didn't even shout as the beast trampled his crops.
He watched unmoving as the dust cloud faded into the distance. After a while he heard running footfalls behind him. That would be Ian, his neighbor.
"Did you have a strange visitor just now?" Ian panted.
"Aye."
"Odd fellow. Looking for Lord Volpus, wanting to hunt dragons, he was."
"Aye. A bit daft, he was. His plan will never work."
Ian chuckled. "Of course it won't. Everyone knows there's no such thing as dragons."
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, October 12th, 2011


I'd heard Greg Van Eekhout interviewed on Escape Pod, where he told about a writing exercise he'd done; he asked his friends to give him story triggers and he would write a story for each one. I decided to try it out. "The Quest Unusual" was one of the resulting stories, triggered by the phrase "the unmistakable smell of scorch." I immediately thought of dragons, so the real challenge was to write a dragon story that didn't feel like any other dragon story I'd read.

- David Steffen

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