“Roll the Bones”
To play Soul & Bones with a dragon is to court death. Or if not death, a nasty set of burns from an ill-tempered sour loser. Dragons were sour losers. Even if you win a match of Soul & Bones, dragons never lose.
Such is the experience held by Gargald. So as a personal rule he’s spent his life clear of opponents with tails, scales, and who could cook their own dinner with a exhale of fiery breath.
Over the years, he’s made an exception. An exception for Rong. The blue and gold serpent could play the best games of Soul & Bones Gergald had ever experienced. There was always a chance of a fiery victory. Gergald didn’t worry so much, though. Each time Gergald beat the dragon–fewer instances than the little man cared to admit–the beast would show Gerald his teeth and demand a chance to best him, to earn back the win Gergald had stolen from him.
With a playful menace the dragon would say, “Ah! You succeeded in beating me. Fair enough. Now you’ll allow me to take that win back from you. Yes.”
There was no argument or request. They would play again. And if Gergald beat Rong a second or third time. Well…
“Another win!” Rong would say in a deep voice that sound as if it came from a empty cauldron. “Fine. Two wins you own me, little man. Either today. Or another. You choose.”
Gergald thought Rong’s threats a means to insure constant company rather than doom. Remember, no one with much sense played Soul & Bones with a dragon.
No one but Gergald.
They met at the usual spot. High on a hill where once a castle stood, but now was more ruins than dwelling. Behind a collapsed wall watched over by crippled stone demons shaped like griffons with broken wings, chipped teeth, and four instead of six claws. By guess the spot was once where the castle’s great hall had stood before ruin. Weeds and grass had reclaimed the stone floor. Two trees had sprouted to flank what remained of a section of one of the hall’s walls. Between the trees and the sloping wall, this spot was an ideal rest stop for travelers who might try their luck against the local’s tales about murdered souls haunting the stones. It was shady. Cool. And there was a Soul & Bones board that nature had left alone by chance, the six-by-six square-divided board rose in protested from the grass.
Rong enjoyed the shade, nestling between the overlooking elms. Opposite the dragon Gergald sat atop a stump that appears to have been sheered clean through by a dragon’s talon. When asked, Rong knew nothing about the felled tree, nor where the chopped trunk had rolled away to.
The dragon joked once, “See what happens when an opponent selfishly doesn’t allow me to win back my win, hmm?” Then the beast barked a laugh, an odd sound sliding up a snake-like neck and leaving from the mouth of a camel.
Gergald forced himself to laugh along that day and for some reason, on his next trip, he again stopped at the castle ruins, planted himself on the tree stump across from the dragon, and played another game of Soul & Bones.
Recently before today, Rong had beat Gergald four times consecutively.
“Will today be the day you take a win from me, old friend?” Rong asked, stroking his long red beard with a hooked claw.
“Hmm,” Gergard said as he examined the stone board, thinking, his head nodding. “You know, Rong? I think it’s in my best interest to let you take your win. Who knows… you may just eat me if I don’t! Hah!”
The dragon raised his head, antlers disturbing the branches of the trees shading him from above. “Eat you? Why, if I wanted you dead I’d slice your belly open.”
Rong swiped a single claw through the air with a swift motion.
“Easier that way,” the dragon declared hotly, as if the notion of eating one of Gergard’s kind was repugnant and Gergarld should know as much. “Besides. I don’t care for dwarf. Meat is too tough. Stringy. Gets caught in my teeth. Hah.”
Gergald raised his gaze, his bushy brows raising nearly into his white hairline. Oh, you say?
“Would you add me, my bones, to your collection, old friend?” Gergarld gestured with an open hand to the pile of meatless carcasses stacked neatly before the dragon’s belly, its greedy claws encircling the collection.
Without a second thought, the dragon inclined his head, “Oh course not. Your head is too big for play.”
From a pouch on his belt, Gergald took out his pipe and pointed the stem at the dragon. “Lesser people have said lesser things about my large head.”
The pipe was empty. Gergarld had given up tobacco some years earlier but couldn’t leave behind the oral fixation. He shoved the end of the pipe’s stem between his lips and reached to the basket at the base of his tree stump. From the basket he pulled a skull of a ravon and placed the polished white bone on the board, in the second row on his side.
The skull rose from the stone square and a yellow ethereal energy spread from the skull, creating a bipedal construct with a whip-like tail. The ravon bone keened and raked at the air with claws of light.
From across the board the dragon hooted. Smoke blew from its nose with mirth. “Well played. Will it last a round to fight?”
Pipe clenched between his teeth, Gergarld shrugged and graciously handed over the next turn to Rong.
Two sets of four claws picked through the bones in the collection in front of the dragon. Eventually finding the skull he desired, the dragon plucked the skull out of the collection deftly with two claws and placed the bones in the back of row of his side of the board.
Blue ethereal energy picked up the skull, what Gergarld recognized as a hawkin, and the energy spread out in a set of wings, razor beak, and forward curving stinger.
The hawkin bone immediately struck out with its stinger, crossing the board to Gergard’s territory.
A unsuspecting spine and a spare few rib bones awoke with a shower of energy, revealing the form of a learo, its jaws widening at the threat to Gergarld’s territory, mane swaying, spine standing erect behind a massive, powerful gut as it stood on two hind legs. The learo reached out its neck and grasped the smaller hawkin in its jaws and began to chew. Energy exploded in a shower of stars, the hawkin skull tumbling to the board lifeless again.
With Gerald’s side of the board defended against Rong’s attack, the ravon dove across the board into enemy territory.
To counter the flying bone, a pair of horns rose from the board, at the front row of Rong’s side of the board. A bulpho charged into a existence, shaping its massive body into an upward attack at the invading ravon.
The ravon bone was quicker, its energy form nimble and lithe in life and death and now game. It dodged around the bulpho’s gouging horns, wrapped its tail around the thick neck, swooped over the creature’s head and threw its enemy’s body of light at another stone in the same row. Upon the impact of the bulpho’s body more starry light scattered and the two horns separated, skittering across the stone squares.
All the while a gyzord padded silently across the board from Gerald’s territory and to the back edge of Rong’s. Only when the gyzord pulled its belly across the stones and passed a spinning bulpho horn did Rong notice the creature.
The gyzord leaped off the edge of the board and onto the untamed grass. The board of stones lit up with yellow light similar to Gergarld’s constructs. Rong turned his camel head away from the bright light. Gergarld chuckled, a gust of air from the outward expanding light blowing his gray mane and the white hair atop his head back from his face. He nearly lost his pipe in the small gale.
Bones belonging to Rong shot of the board, lifeless again, and into the grass. Only Gergarld’s bones remained, hovering, clawing at the stone squares.
Gergarld pulled the pipe from his mouth and said, “Guess that’s game to me.”
A puff of smoke exhaled from Rong’s flared nostrils. But the blue and gold dragon kept a wide grin filled with dozens of serrated teeth. He dipped his head in respect, horns lightly touching the grass, and conceded defeat with honor.
Then his head rose slowly. His red eyes rimed with gold narrowed.
Gergarld shoved his pipe into his mouth to keep his teeth from chattering. Was this the team he’d gone too far? Did he beat the dragon so badly that the beast’s pride couldn’t allow the dwarf to leave the board uncooked?
The dragon said easily, “You owe me a win, old friend. Next time then?”