When the Ashes Come to Hunt

"As the sun began its slow descent, the beast perched upon the crest of the hill and gazed into the horizon. The crimson rays from the setting sun tinted his obsidian scales with a reddish glimmer."

            The village folk looked up as the sky changed colour from a lighter shade of grey into a darker one. The object which was obscuring the sun was high enough to be a cloud and appeared denser than lead. While the object in the sky briefly caught the villager’s attention, it was only a matter of time until they went back to their business. Every now and then, a child would point up at the sky inquisitively, only to be told by the grown-ups: “This is just something that happens.” Still, the children would stare at the skies until it cleared up again. 

In the meantime, through circles and somersaults, the beast roamed the sky. There was scant prey on his radar. He fed on the flesh of birds, and occasionally dived into the nearby stream, rising from the water with a mouth full of sturgeon. “This is no meal for a king,” he thought to himself. And yet, he would have to make do for the time being. The village folk had christened him the Ash Maker. They meant it as an insult. That was not how the beast saw it. The village was a quaint little place at the foot of a hill, peopled by simple villagers who usually tended to their own business. 

    As the sun began its slow descent, the beast perched upon the crest of the hill and gazed into the horizon. The crimson rays from the setting sun tinted his obsidian scales with a reddish glimmer. He wondered why this repetition occurred at dusk every evening, why he sat brooding upon the sunset. There must have been a reason why he began doing it before it became a mindless habit,  but now he could not for the life of him remember what it was. A thought struck him for the first time in decades—or was it centuries? He wondered whether the cavern was too large and spacious considering it was just him? Had he not hoarded enough treasure for five, nay, ten of his kind? And for what? For the first time in ages, Ash Maker felt what he thought he had long forgotten: He was lonely. 

He assessed the day’s hunt and realised there had been more glorious days in his past where he had feasted on the corpses of mammoths. But today, he dug into the flesh of an unfortunate buffalo. The buzzards circled overhead, eyeing the scraps from afar. After having had his fill, he retired to his cavern, attracting the cacophony of hungry vultures outside. The beasts, save for Ash Maker, were peace-loving creatures, only resorting to violence when provoked. Ash Maker learned from the errors of his fallen brethren. He did not wait for the humans and their intolerable pests to mount their horses, draw their strings and aim their spears. There was a reason he was still around while others of his kind were not. The only reason he allowed the village at the foothills to survive was that he did not consider them a threat. And if he ever felt too lazy to hunt, he would descend upon the village with one mighty swoop and fly away with their cattle.

But none of this mattered.. Ash Maker could have the most exquisitely seared cut of meat before him, and it would do nothing to soothe the hollow ache he felt in the depth of his heart. He had long resigned himself to his solitary fate. His pity at himself quickly transformed into vengeful rage as he made his way towards the mouth of the cavern. With one swift sweep of his tail, he sent the vultures fleeing haphazardly. The village folk had done Ash Maker no harm, and yet it was their kind who had hunted down the beast’s innocent brethren. Yes, blood was to beget more blood. It only seemed fair to Ash Maker. As he began to make his descent along the hillside, a screeching roar echoed through the valley. It sent every fibre of Ash Maker’s body into a frenzy, equal parts hope and suspicion. He had known humans to mimic the cries of his kind to lure his brethren to their tragic ends. Ash Maker, on the other hand, was no naive youngling. He had not survived as long as he did by being a fool. Yet, the scars on his body gave proof that he was not a coward either.

Against his better judgment, Ash Maker took a step back, sinking his claws into the ground to build momentum for the leap which he afterwards transformed into graceful flight. Within moments, he covered fields and meadows, the hillside now a distant speck behind him. The closer he got to the source of that mysterious voice, a gnawing fear began to grip his heart. He could make out luminous strands of hidden pain mixed in with the screeches and the roars.

He sheathed his wings as he glided closer to the ground, and approached the spot with measured steps. There was a likelihood that humans were hiding in the trees. Part of him considered burning down the forest just to be safe. Yet he exercised restraint; there could be someone lying injured nearby.

As he carefully walked ahead, Ash Maker felt his feet step in something warm. He looked down to see streaks of carmine flowing through the gulley in the terrain. It bothered him that he had not smelt the blood before he stepped in it. Giving caution to the wind, Ash Maker immediately rushed in the direction of the blood, his heart beating faster with each step. Maybe he did not have to spend the rest of his existence in solitude after all. No. No maybes. He absolutely refused to spend the rest of his existence in solitude.

And then he spotted her. Her eyes, one of them shut and the other bloodshot, made a silent plea to Ash Maker. Tranced by the image of her bellowing in pain before him, Ash Maker nearly missed the giant boulder crushing half her body. The weight of the immense rock was too much even for Ash Maker to dislodge. And what good was it going to do anyway? Looking at her, studying the situation, he noticed a tiny spear lodged in her snout. This was definitely a human weapon. The boulder was a trap, and once she had been incapacitated, some local hero had fostered the courage to prick the mighty beast with his sharp little plaything.

Ash Maker knew that there were bound to be more humans nearby, waiting for the right moment to strike. He knew that fleeing was the correct decision at that moment. He knew he should thrash around and decimate the place. Yet when Ash Maker looked upon the visage of the scarlet creature writhing in agony, something inside him dislodged and he felt that he was quickly drifting towards the embrace of death. 

He slumped next to her, placing his paw upon hers as if to comfort her, exhaling one last whiff of smoke before making peace with his fate. But Ash Maker’s peace was not the same as everyone else’s. Even having resigned himself to death, he breathed fire in all directions, thrashing his tail, as more and more humans hiding among the trees flooded the enclosure.

The next morning, the timid shepherd boy, on his regular route, encountered what he could only describe as an unreal sight: two majestic beasts, crushed under boulders and covered in spears, lying dead in an enclosure that had obviously been burnt to the ground.

Ash Maker was right about one thing. He did not spend the rest of his existence in solitude.