The King summoned his court.
Word spread quickly throughout the castle; by messengers sent to important courtiers' doors, and from there swiftly by grapevine to the rest. All the important figures of the kingdom appeared before the court room's doors, to wait and speculate amongst themselves as to the purpose of the King's summons. The Nobles were all there, dress swords at their sides; the Generals, too, bearing rather sharper cutlery. The Priests, the Hero, the Diplomats, all the other individuals essential or ancillary to the court's functioning, stood and waited until the court room's doors were opened at last; then in a mob they spilled in, squabbling to establish precedence.
The Herald blew his trumpet at them until they stopped.
"The King will now speak," the Herald declared, and the Guards thumped their ceremonial (but still quite effective) halberds on the floor for emphasis. The court settled.
"My scouts have given me grave news this morning," the King declared. "A Dragon has made roost in a cave some hours' travel to the south-east. En route, it put several farms to the torch, and consumed a 'prize' cow whole. There is no telling what damage it may due if it is allowed to continue its rampage. It must be slain."
The court shifted in unease.
The Generals, feeling compelled by the demands of warrior-bravery, were the first to speak. "Your Majesty, this task cannot be ours," they said. "When the howling barbarians of the west invaded, we sallied forth without hesitation, and beat them back into the woods from which they came. When the hideous catoblepas terrorized the countryside, we sent our best men out to defeat it at great risks to themselves. But a dragon? What can any ordinary man do against such a thing as that? To send our soldiers against such a creature would be to condemn them to purposeless death. We ask that you look to another of your humble servants."
The Priests, feeling the King's eye linger on the uncomfortably long, spoke second. "Your Majesty, this task cannot be ours," they said. "When Your Majesty's glorious conquests extended the realm to the west, we happily went forth to convert the heathens, even at dreadful risk of violence from their shaman-chiefs; it is by this fact that they remain today fully within the fold. When the tarasque bedeviled the villages, we ourselves went forth to it, taming it with hymns and prayers and so allowing it to be transformed into that handsome cloak which you even now wear. But what could we do to a dragon? The sounds of its roaring would drown out the Word; we would simply be cooked and eaten! We ask that you look to another of your humble servants."
The Hero, leaning insouciantly in a corner, met the King's eyes. He smirked.
The King grimaced. He turned his gaze pointedly away, hunting for another candidate. And there, near the back of the court-room, his gaze caught on a face he hadn't spoken to in some time...
The Sub-Minister of Agricultural Dispute Mediation, taking the opportunity to engage in a little entertaining banter with the Royal Alchemist - not bothering to pay attention to the affairs of Court, for what could dragon-slaying possibly have to do with him? - felt a pair of eyes of on his back. He shifted. He turned. He saw the King looking his way.
Out of the corner of his eye, the Sub-Minister saw the Royal Alchemist shuffling to the right, in the hopes that the King was looking at the Sub-Minister. The Sub-Minister, reciprocating these hopes, surreptitiously shifted left.
The King's eyes tracked the Royal Alchemist.
The Sub-Minister breathed a sigh of relief.
The Royal Alchemist, meanwhile, began to perspire. He coughed, once. "Ah - Your Majesty? Is there something you require of me?" he asked.
"I have been giving you gold and supplies for the last eight years so that you can distill a Potion of Immortality, yes?" the King inquired.
"A serum of immortality, please, your Majesty," the Alchemist replied, "and that is only one of the several things I've been doing to benefit the Realm, as I mentioned during my last request for funding - "
"Enough." the King said. "There is a dragon attacking the realm. You will waste no more of my time: kill the dragon within the next two weeks, or lose both your funding and your head. This court is concluded."
The Alchemist, stunned and slack-jawed, fended off attempts at communication from various court syncophants as he wandered back to his tower, locking the door behind himself. Once he confirmed it was firmly shut, he began to rend at his hair and clothes. (As men in great distress may sometimes do.)
"What am I going to do?" the Alchemist wailed. "I can't finish the elixir of life in two weeks! Scores of great men have worked on the problem for generations! Either I'll be eaten by a dragon, or beheaded by the King's guards! Aaaagh!"
"Sounds like you really have been wasting the King's gold, then," the Hero remarked.
The Alchemist started. "What? No! How did you get in here?"
"I wanted to talk to you, so I decided to wait in your lab," the Hero told him, a smirk playing over his lips. "You're a pretty slow walker."
The Alchemist sighed. He straightened. "Look here, whoever you are - I have in no way wasted the King's gold. Yes, yes, I have not synthesized the Philosopher's Stone in my eight years here. But that is like saying that you, in your stay at the court, have not slain God!"
"Is God a monster, then?" the Hero inquired
"To face me with this conundrum!" the Alchemist said, walking to his shelves. "I have slaved over my work tirelessly, producing all that you see: here, a more potent oil of vitriol! Here, a cheaply-made black-powder! Here, a newly purified compound, which I have named after myself - "
"And what use are any of these, aside from assuaging your own vanity?"
"You presume too much! All these are of the greatest importance. My improvements to the oil of vitriol allows the easier dissolution of base metals into an aqueous solution, though greater care is necessarily required to prevent accidental dissolution of one's own flesh while handling it; of course, an expert such as myself may dismiss such a minor concern. The black powder is useful for the blast-powderization of ores and elemental stones, allowing their essences to be more easily obtained. I have not as yet found any use for that new compound which I mentioned, but there are many more things I might mention... what is that look in your eyes? What are you doing?"
These remarks were undertaken in response to the Hero's sudden motion, seizing a jar of oil of vitriol in one hand and a sack of black powder in the other. He laughed aloud
"Saving some time - oh, and your head, Alchemist. Come along."
The Alchemist hurried behind the Hero's purposeful strides, staring with worried eyes at the jar of oil of vitriol, which bobbed alarmingly in the Hero's careless grip. They reached the stables luckily without incident; the Hero swiftly found his horse and prepared it for travel, saddling it and loading on the saddlebags, as the Alchemist looked on.
"Ah," the Alchemist said, watching the Hero carelessly dump the oil of vitriol jar into one of the saddlebags - "you must be more careful with the oil of vitriol! Surround it with padding, or it will certainly rupture!"
The Hero pulled an armful of dirty straw from the floor and dumped it into the saddlebags. The Alchemist winced, but said nothing. The Hero dropped the sack of black powder into the other saddlebag, and then turned to the Alchemist.
"I'm afraid that I was never taught to ride a horse - " the Alchemist began.
"You can ride behind me. Here - "
The Hero lifted the Alchemist onto the back of the horse, then gracefully swung himself up into the saddle. "Giddyup!" he cried, and with a flick of the reins sent the horse galloping away.
"Ow!" the Alchemist exclaims.
The ride was bumpy. The Alchemist walked with a sway when at last he was allowed to dismount, before a gaping cave mouth. The sunset cast an orange glow over everything - not unlike, the Alchemist considered, fire.
"Will you kill the dragon, now?" he asked.
The Hero looks back, surprised. He laughed, a short sharp bark. "Me? No. The King didn't ask me, remember? No, I'm just here to help! You're giving the orders and taking the actions, friend."
"...and what orders should I be giving?" the Alchemist asked.
"Right now, you should be ordering me to use your carefully-selected components to set a trap for the dragon," the Hero suggested.
The Alchemist looked at the saddlebags. His eyes widened.
"So you pour the black powder on the ground - "
The Hero complied
"Place the oil of vitriol in it - "
The hero dropped the jar into the powder; it hisses, and the Alchemist blanched.
"And then, then - " the Alchemist said, putting some distance between himself and the cave mouth, " - you summon the dragon - "
The Hero shouted: "Yoo-hoo!"
Long minutes passed.
Then a shadow appeared within the cave; which, after a moment, resolved itself into a red-scaled, golden-eyed Dragon, five times the height of a man. (Specifically, the Hero, which it rather dwarfed.) Its footsteps shook the earth.
It looked all about, as if confused, or perhaps just sleepy. The sun's last rays played about its scales.
"Hey!" the Hero shouted. "Down here!"
The Dragon looked down. Its pupils narrowed. Its nostrils widened. It burst into flame. (For this was not, exactly, a fire-breathing sort of Dragon.)
The Hero grinned broadly. He drew his sword from the sheath at his side, saluted the Dragon with it, and took a long step back.
Meanwhile, at the Dragon's feet, the pile of black powder had begun to smolder. A thin streamer of smoke rose. Then it exploded.
The Dragon did not expect this.
The spray of glass and concentrated acid blasted the Dragon's chest, sending it reeling back. It screamed its agony to the sky as its belly steamed and sizzled. The Hero waited as the Dragon writhed, posing himself carefully; then, when he judged the moment right, he took ten long steps forward and stabbed through the dragon's weakened chest-armor. He twisted his sword once and leapt backward, the Dragon's crumpling form falling just short of his heel.
The Alchemist, watching, felt there was an important question that needed answering.
"Why didn't the King just send you?" he asked.
The Hero looked at him.
"You really are a shut-in, aren't you?" he asked.
"Hey - " the Alchemist began to interject.
The Hero cut him off with a raised hand.
"Since I'm kind," he said, "I'll explain."
"My Father, the rightful king, ruled this kingdom twenty years ago. He was killed by the Usurper - his drink poisoned - and his throne was taken. Most of his children were killed, but I survived, smuggled out of the country by a family retainer. There it might have ended - but for a prophecy."
"I think I know where this is going," the Alchemist said.
"Do you?" the Hero asked, his eyebrow cocked. "Do tell."
"The prophecy - " the Alchemist said, ordering his thoughts. "That the old King's son will return, when he is of age - that he will be sent by the new king to slay a monster - that, acclaimed as a Hero, he will seize the throne - ?"
"That's the one," the Alchemist said. "A funny kind of thing, really. Seems that until the Usurper sends me to kill a monster, more will keep coming. And that no monster will be susceptible to attack from any who have been sent to kill a monster before..."
"So you helped me to kill the monster to speed things up - so that a new one would appear sooner?" the Alchemist asked, his mind boggling somewhat at the thought.
"Sure," the Hero grinned lazily. "But, now that I'm thinking about, there was one more bit to the prophecy."
"What?" the Alchemist asked.
"When I dethrone the Usurper, I will kill him," the Hero said. "I will disembowel him, letting him die a long, slow death, and behead him when he has the perfect expression of agony on his face. Then I'll order his head stuffed and mounted above my throne, with a plaque labeled, 'the Perils of Ambition'."
"... that wasn't in any of the versions of the prophecy I heard," the Alchemist said.
"No?" the Hero asked. "Funny, that. Perhaps I added it. It fits so well, though, you'd hardly notice - don't you think?"
The ride back was quiet.
At the celebration banquet, the Alchemist was lauded. The Noblemen cheered him when he described his sudden realization that the black-powder and oil-of-vitriol could be combined for a trap; the Generals applauded when he described how, never having used a sword before, he put all his strength into the stab that ended the Dragon. The King announced that his annual funding was doubled, in return for which the Alchemist was expected to work exclusively on weaponization of his various chemicals; the Alchemist was not particularly pleased with this, preferring to focus on the pure natural philosophies, but thought it best under the circumstances not to object. All and sundry made merry, feasting on fine wine and fresh-cooked dragonmeat steaks, and the King's heart was glad - except whenever his eyes traveled the hall and met with those of the Hero.
The Hero just watched the King. Simply watched.
A smile on his face.