Dim light filtered through the smoke that hung among the trees in the woods, piercing the smoggy veil in a fit of feeble rays. The air felt thick and close, dampening all sound and clinging to Camlen’s skin like a cool and sticky breath.
He walked through the woods, crushing fallen leaves and snapping twigs in careful, muted steps. The smoke grew thicker, stinging his throat as he breathed. Camlen squinted his watering eyes, peering through the haze until he finally came to a tall and looming tree. It had smooth and shiny bark, scored with tiny, diamond-shaped scales that shifted color in the dim light.
Camlen’s heart quickened. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a scale, soft in the middle yet jagged around the edges. Then he put a hand to the tree. Just like the scale, the bark was both sharp and soft, like hardened leather embossed with glass.
Camlen continued around it, running his hand along the bark until his finger snagged against the sharp edge of a scale. He gasped and sucked on his injured finger, the tang of blood metallic on his tongue.
Then the ground trembled, and the smoke grew so thick that Camlen could no longer see–it was all he could do breathe between fitful and ragged coughs. The soil beneath his feet shifted, and Camlen was pitched to the ground. He tried peering through the haze, but the tears streaming from his eyes rendered the world to a watery blur.
A shadow moved through the smoke, and a deep rumbling resonated through Camlen’s chest. And then, before he had a chance to get to his feet, a great head of a dragon brought its scaled snout to Camlen’s nose.
“Soft flesh,” the dragon rumbled. Smoke twined from its nostrils, smelling of burnt wood and rusted iron. “It wakes me from my slumber, though for what reason, I do not know.” It breathed out a puff of smoke in Camlen’s face. “Perhaps it wants to be eaten.”
Camlen cringed back as far as he dared, yet did not move away. “N-no. Not eaten, uh… Oh Great One.”
Camlen waved a trembling hand in the air. “It’s t-the s-smoke, Oh Great One. It’s s-so thick it b-blocks the sunlight. Our c-c-crops are withering.”
“I care nothing for your crops.”
“I-I expect n-not, Oh Great One. B-but perhaps you c-care about this.” He opened his hand, showing a perfect, diamond-shaped scale.
The dragon growled, and Camlen cringed.
“What does it want?”
“N-nothing,” Camlen said. “They say a d-dragon can’t fly without all his s-scales. That dragons will g-guard them like the finest of treasures. If this is y-yours, then take it. P-please.”
The dragon watched him with a great, jewel-like eye and then, with a great claw, reached out and took the scale. The feeble light was blocked as a pair of massive bat-like wings stretched across the sky. The wind gusted, swirling the smoke and fallen leaves into a whirlwind. And then, almost as soon as it began, it was over.
Camlen peered up at the sky as the smoke slowly dissipated. For the first time in months, he could feel the sunlight on his face. He smiled a shaky grin, and then he passed out on the cool forest floor.