The night was dark and still: starless, moonless, windless. If not for the groans of the shifting planks and the light smack of oars against sea, there would be no sound in his ears but his own beating heart.

He knew this was the night. He knew, soon, his vision would come true. Fear and the chilled, salty air sent a tingle down his spine. With the vigor of youth and longing to keep his courage steady, he fought back the darkness attempting to cloud his mind; a darkness not of the night but of the growing presence of the enemy in his mind. Though frightened of what was coming, he remained unmoved, knowing it was his destiny to sail into the mouth of the dragon and face it. For if he did not, who else would or could? This time was made for him. This enemy was made for him. Or was he made for it? It didn’t matter. It was his duty, and he would not back down.

“Kutikal, I can’t see a thing,” whispered the shaken voice of Ilantatu, as he approached from behind. “How does Captain know which way to point the bloody vessel?”

A smirk grew on Kutikal’s face. “I told him to follow me,” he answered through the side of his mouth.

“What? What does that mean?” Ilantatu’s voice rose from a whisper to a high-pitched crack.

“Ssshhh . . . ” heeded Kutikal, followed by a light chuckle. “Whichever way I face, that is the way he should turn the ship.”

Ilantatu lowered his voice again and inquired, “How do you know which way to face?”

“I can feel it. I can feel the dragon burning in my soul. I can see it in my mind.”

Not more than a minute of silence passed before Kutikal’s friend began to voice his greatest concern with frantic hands. “Why must we row toward the beast? It doesn’t make sense. Why can’t we go around it? We have enough enemies to face when we get to Tuyarattin. That’s where our glory lies, not dying here in the middle of a dark sea with no one to tell the tale.”

“You’re wrong,” Kutikal admonished, still unmoved. “This is not the kind of enemy we can run from. It will find us. This is the dragon’s sea. We must face it or die running. I choose the former. Like death itself, there is no getting around this slithering foe. Besides, you know the writings of our Fathers as well as I do: ‘The greatest glory is to fight courageously, without the praise of men.’”

“Wait,” said Ilantatu. “Don’t think me a coward. I will fight a man. I will fight any man, anywhere, any time. I do not care if anyone sees or not. My glory is for my country, for my family, for my way of life, for my gods.”

“Come. Come. I know you want glory for yourself, too. That is not an evil, ‘unless it is the only glory you seek . . .”

“. . . or the first glory you seek.’ Yes, yes, I have studied my Aristattil,” snapped Ilantatu. “I will stand against a thousand men on my own, knowing I will die. I am not afraid of death. I am not afraid to run headlong into the spears and arrows and blades. I will not even flinch when we arrive on the shores of Tuyarattin. But this fiend, this watery serpent whose fire is so hot it turns the sea to vapor and iron to butter with one blow? No, no,” he shook his head and threw his hands in the air. “I cannot. I cannot face it. It is more than a thousand men. It is more than death. It is torment. Chewing . . . Clawing . . . The pit of the beast’s stomach . . . No. No glory waits in that steaming belly. That sea snake. That . . . I dare not even say the name.”

“Nukarum!” screamed Kutikal at the top of his lungs, as if daring the beast to answer.

“Don’t say it! That is a cursed name. Don’t say it! A cursed name on cursed waters is the last thing we need.”

Kutikal let out a throaty laugh.

“Are you not afraid?” asked his friend.

“Afraid? No. Terrified? Yes.”

“Then why do you laugh? Why do you stand unmoved in the face of this terror? Why scream his name?”

Kutikal gave pause. “I must,” he said. He answered thus for he knew that courage is being terrified and moving forward — counting the cost and being willing to pay.

Kutikal looked Ilantatu dead in the eyes, “Our enemies should be weighed for weaknesses. We must look at them and know what the chance of winning is and make our best plan.”

The truth that Kutikal was beginning to discover is that some enemies are too great. No plan will prepare you. Their violence is not reasonable. It cannot be understood. They are the ones who must be stopped more than any other. At all costs.

“So we’re winging it?” questioned Ilantatu, uneasily.

“Headlong into the furnace — fear in one hand, faith in the other.”

“I’m not sure I like this . . . Wait. What’s that?”

A low hum was building in the night air. A light vibration could be felt in the feet of the two friends standing on the deck.

“Do you feel that?” asked Ilantatu.

“Of course.”

“Is it?”

“Yes.”

Suddenly, the whole ship shook violently, then rose up out of the water as if it had run aground. But that couldn’t be it, for as soon as the ship lifted, it shifted starboard about fifty feet in not more than a few seconds and splashed back down into the sea with a great concussion that threw every man on board off his feet and sent a wave to wash over even the mast.

Though Kutikal lost his footing like every other man, he never lost his wits. He hit the deck in a rolling fashion that propelled him back to his feet, but his speed was too great for the landing to be graceful. He slid more than ten feet into the side rail and got the wind knocked out of him. This did not faze him for long, for as soon as he hit the rail, the wave blew over the ship. By the time Ilantatu coughed away the cold seawater and realized he had been thrown flat on his back, Kutikal was extending a friendly, wet hand. “Get up! Get up! He’s here!”

Ilantatu slapped away the offered hand. “I can get myself up,” he said, as he jumped to his feet, dripping wet. He rubbed at the back of his head. “I thought you could feel the beast coming?”

“I didn’t know he was going to run up under us like that.”

A great tumult of confusion rang from the galley, as fearful voices screamed, “She’s breaking apart! . . . We’re going to sink! . . . The beast has found us!” Every oarsman fled his position and headed for the deck.

“This would have been an easier fight without a headache,” Ilantatu joked. “So, this is it — the moment we’ve waited for?”

“Yes!” Kutikal yelled over the rush of men crowding about them, “This is it! Stick with me. Are you ready?”

“What does it matter?” Ilantatu smiled and drew his sword.

“That won’t do much good. Take this.” Kutikal opened the lid to a long, rectangular encasement built into the deck, reached in, and grabbed two great harpoons. Each bar was eight feet in length and made of a sturdy, boa patterned Snakewood. At the killing end was a three-foot, acute blade made of Etenian black silk, the strongest and lightest metal in Kirisu, sharpened to a fine tip. At the other end, a small metal counterweight. Kutikal tossed one to Ilantatu.

“What can even this do against Nukarum?”

“We shall see,” said Kutikal.

“Oarsmen!” commanded Captain. “Back to your oars!”

“We’re taking on water,” returned a few men.

“If we don’t ram this serpent, we will all die,” Captain reasoned politely. Then, his voice cut the commotion like a thrashing whip. “And any man who does not get to his position now will die by my hand. BACK TO YOUR OARS! RAMMING SPEED!”

The men heeded Captain.

“What’s our heading, Kutikal?” asked Captain.

“Forward. It will show itself soon. It will dare us.”

The ship was taking on water, but not quickly enough to slow them. The serpent hit them hard enough to scare them, not destroy them; there would be no fun in that. Nukarum loved a challenge and preferred to eat prey that still had hope. The taste of blood was not as sweet without the scent of hope being crushed as its teeth sank in.

Within a minute, the ship was at full speed. Kutikal and Ilantatu stepped to the prow and readied their harpoons.

The dark night lit blue as a flame burst from under the waters reaching high into the sky a few hundred feet ahead and engulfed the surrounding sea in sizzling steam.

“Here he comes! Brace yourself!” shouted Ilantatu, though hesitation was in his eyes.

Kutikal put a hand on his friend and calmly beckoned him, “Stand fast.”

Nukarum breached. Its slinking, silvery body lingered fifty feet above the foaming sea. Its orange eyes peered straight into the two friends.

“Arutal, have mercy,” grunted Ilantatu.

They were within a hundred feet of the waiting water-drake. Nukarum’s mouth opened, as its body curved back, priming to engulf the vessel.

Kutikal screamed the beast’s name one last time, “Nukarum!” He lifted his harpoon in his right hand and gripped his left hand tight, holding it high in the air — fear in one hand, faith in the other. Kutikal turned to his friend and, with a grin, shouted, “Into the furnace!”


Citation Information

Donald W. Catchings, Jr., “Violence of Fire,” An Unexpected Journal: Dragons 5, no. 1. (Summer 2022), 158-164.