This is the third and final part of Domestic Dispute. Read Part 2 here
The two-leg’s lair was a smaller mound surrounded by trees and fields of green grass far from the pulsing hive. Charax waited patiently outside as the little two-legs retrieved a key and then led him to a door in the side of a hill which opened into a long tunnel. It was a bit of construction Charax finally understood. Perhaps this two-legs shared a little more than a spark of the inferno that burned in the chest of dragon-kind.
“You’ll need a name,” said Charax.
“But I do have one,” replied the two-leg.
“I shall call you Dustmaw,” said Charax. At this, the two-leg only nodded.
The tunnel descended to an enormous door about the size of Charax’s head and composed of the densest metals . The surface of the door was covered in rods and with a large knobby wheel mounted in the center. Dustmaw leaned forward and wiggled his fingers next to the door. After a series of high-pitched squeals, the thick hatch swung outward.
Inside was mana from the heavens. Stacks of stardust, refined and condensed into perfectly overlapping blocks to form a very pleasing geometric symmetry. Piles of gems reflected the light from their sharp angles and spread streaks of color around the room. Dustmaw appeared larger as he bathed in the dapple glow of the horde.
“How?” Charax gasped.
“What do you mean, my friend?” Gently, the confident two-leg waved a hand and Charax felt compelled to move aside. “How did I acquire all this…Stardust?”
“Yes,” Charax said breathlessly. As the two-leg sealed the vault door, the bridge of Charax’s nose twitched and something felt wrong, but if only Kirya were here to see such a sight, it might wake her from her slumber.
“The other two-legs – is that what you called us? The others give me their treasures and I make them grow.”
Despite himself, Charax’s eyes widened. “Grow? Trees grow. So do slime-borns. But Stardust? That’s nonsense.”
“Forgive me. A figure of speech in our limited language. The others entrust their treasures to me and I make things called investments. It’s a value placed on a group of two-legs engaged in enterprise. When they succeed in their endeavors, I get more money back and share.”
Charax scratched his chin. The vault door was impressive, but hardly a challenge. He could rip it off the hinges right now and carry away the contents.
But the idea of getting even more of the precious treasure was irresistible.
“What do you say, Mr. Charax? Want to see your fortune grow?”
Charax eyed the tiny two-leg. He was an insect. A slime-born. A bag of water and bone to be crushed beneath a heel. But if this one wanted to serve him, so be it.
“Yes. I’d like to see that,” Charax said.
Under Dustmaw’s watchful gaze, Charax took flight. If anything went wrong he’d pluck tiny Dustmaw’s arms off and maybe hold him beneath a particularly clear piece of quartz under a blazing sun. But, if the little two-leg could actually lure more stardust, Charax would be pleased. Maybe Kirya would welcome a pet? She’d have to be the one to cleanup after it though. They were such messy beasts.
When Charax arrived at his lair, Kirya was nothing but a gilded island amid the sludge. With delicate motions, he scooped her up and gathered rocks to make a raised bed. As he worked, the cavern rumbled and the jet of fetid water ceased, but the air remained dense with fumes.
“Kirya? Can you hear me?”
No answer came except the rise and fall of her flanks.
“Kirya, I’m going to bring us more shiny things than you’ve ever seen.” Charax spoke as he gathered their horde by the cavern entrance. “You wouldn’t believe how the two-legs have spread. The things they can do. Beautiful things with stardust and crystals. I…I don’t understand.” His voice trailed off and he paused with a claw full of treasure before diving back into his work. “I’ve met this two-leg who speaks. Dustmaw is his name. He can collect stardust from the two-legs. We use our treasure as a trap of sorts. It draws them like flies to dung. He must be a sort of hive leader.”
Charax bent low next to Kirya’s ear and whispered, “But once I see how his scheme works, I’ll take everything. I’ll bring it all, for you. So much treasure, it will raise you up above the waters. Glitter in your eyes.” He traced a talon on her slack cheeks.
Horde in tow, Charax left Kirya to her dreaming.
Dustmaw had been talking for hours. Again. Pointing at a rapidly changing array of colorful pictures and scribblings. Again. Every day the two-legs would scurry into his chamber, sit around a plank of wood, and project light on the wall.
Charax yawned a mighty yawn of dragon-breath that choked even the unflappable Dustmaw. The other two-legs around the table looked accusingly at each other and Charax pulled his head away from the office window. No one had been able to see him besides his temporary “business partner”, so drawn were they to the glowing screen, but at times, they would be alerted to his presence. A primordial echo – like when the four-legs ran or cowered. A deeply rooted fear of dragon-kind, mused Charax exultantly, that even all their lights and stone walls and cacophony of buzzing and whirring hadn’t been able to completely erase.
None of Dustmaw’s jabbering made sense to Charax other than the fact that many times, the two-legs would trade with Dustmaw to shut him up. Most often they seemed to trade in paper. A promise they had treasures, Dustmaw told him – they were much too weak to carry stardust with them.
On this went, month after two-leg month, year after year. It was the blink of a dragon’s eye, but those eyelids were becoming heavier and heavier. To stay awake, Charax tried peering into the other windows of the building.
Dustmaw’s lair was atop the highest mound in the hive and the floors below always buzzed with activity during the day. But the two-legs were far from interesting.
In the morning, they would flood in on their metal beasts and infest the mound in knots which would slowly disperse. They’d then sit. And sit.
They’d stare at light, chitter into the air, until finally they’d all flood out of the mound like someone had pulled a plug at the base. Then their tall hives would sit bright and empty, fighting back the night which had once shown even the furthest stars. Next, the sun would rise and the annoying creatures would do it all again.
His eyelids drooped further, then blinked. He shook his head into the dimming sunlight and climbed back up to Dustmaw’s office, ready to demand his treasures. He needed to return to Kirya before he too drifted back into dreams.
Dustmaw’s office sat empty. The chamber with the slab of wood remained quiet and unused. The adjacent little hives were vacant. Curious, Charax flew to Dustmaw’s private mound.
The mound had grown since his last visit. An enormous tiled pool filled the backyard surrounded by polished stones. A stone path led from there to a new structure. Charax pried back the top to peer inside and saw rows of polished metal beasts but no Dustmaw. He returned to the central mound and began calling in the windows.
“Dustmaw? Dustmaw! I demand you come out of there!” Tilting his massive head, he placed an ear against the cool, flat surface and listened. Not a sound.
Sending out a curl of smoke from his nostrils, Charax stomped toward the only other place to look: the vault. There or not, he’d take his share and then some of the little two-leg’s horde and return to Kirya.
A huff, a snort, and a flick of his claw and the vault door split. The immense piles of treasure beyond glittered and shimmered, making golden tattoos of light across his scales as his talon passed through the doorway. His mouth split into an eager grin.
Then, that same feeling of wrongness struck. Across his toes, up his chest, winding it’s way along the length of his neck and finally to his twitching nostrils. That same feeling he’d cast aside on his first visit.
There was no scent of stardust.
Frantic, Charax thrust his head into the vault and the entire scene parted like a curtain of silk. He whirled to look behind him. A flat, lifeless veil depicting a treasure-filled vault hung in the air. Exactly like the light Dustmaw would cast on his office wall. The vault held no treasure, only illusion.
He wanted to roar and rage. He wanted to flatten the two-leg world with a swipe of his tail. Melt their metal and stone empire with his burning breath. But as the realization sunk in that his treasures were gone, his dear Kirya lost to dreams, a tired weight settled on his shoulders that threatened to pin him to the earth.
Charax shook off the deepening slumber and took drunkenly to the skies, winging his way toward his lair. Careening into the mountain, he tumbled to the cave and slithered down the long tunnel. The air was thick and stifling. He roared in defiance and clawed his way to Kirya’s listless form.
Her breath was slow and wheezing. Charax parted the sludge that had built up around her. He groomed her earth-toned scales and picked away debris. He stared at her shuttered eyes, willing them to open, watching for the slightest twitch.
Gently, he gathered her in his arms and slunk up the tunnel and into the night. From atop their mountain, the stars fought back the chemical glow of the two-leg’s hives in the valley below. It had been a long time since Charax’s eyes had looked upward and now he stared out and beyond.
The stars turned along the invisible wheel of the sky, their sparks multiplying as twilight ran its dying course. Swaths of dust were soon visible, stretched for vast distances between glowing points.
Charax looked down at the slumbering Kirya. Her head swayed like a blade of grass in the wind as her neck arched across his forearm. Her tail was drawn out across the Earth, marking their passage from the cave. The dragging had left a deep furrow, though in his arms, she felt weightless, an extension of his own body. Without a thought to the place he once called home, Charax bore her toward the glittering lights of the heavens.