"It was over in a moment and the folks had gathered round,
There before them lay the body of the outlaw on the ground,
Oh, he might have went on living but he made one fatal slip,
When he tried to match the ranger with the big iron on his hip,
Big iron on his hip."
Marty Robbins, Big Iron
Chapter Five - Once Upon a Time in the East
The Yellow Tiger shifted his weight, his face screwed tight with concentration as he raised the meal piping to his shoulder.
His fingers - one notched the end where an axe had almost got him - tickled the metal tail that hung underneath. What the Tiger knew to be a trigger. He tracked the half-man's reluctant progress into the cavernous hole, whispering under his breath as he did so.
The other three bandits crouched around him, waiting.
Lee Hux'een swore in a soundless croak. The bandits behind him snapped their fingers, and pointed further in. He croaked, noiselessly, and pushed himself onwards with arms that felt like lead.
The dragon. The pa'h-lung. They wouldn't make him...he couldn't...it...he felt his shirt dampen with sudden warm release. He cried, hoping the beast would snap him up quickly. Hoping it would be...
The scaly body lunged, suddenly, a great gaping jaw yawning and surging up to meet the half-man. He shrieked and fell backwards on himself, desperately scrabbling at the wet, boggy incline that fell into the dragon's lair. He shrieked again, wailing as the jaws closed on him. As the serpent withdrew, as suddenly as it had emerged, Lee's brittle fingers clawing at the dirt as he disappeared into the darkness.
The Yellow Tiger blinked, and squeezed the trigger. An explosion, and the pipe spat out fire into the dank pit. A roar, and the marshlands seemed to shake. Zhung screamed, high-pitched and shrill, and the Tiger barked at him for silence.
The Tiger levelled the pipe again, and squeezed the trigger. Nothing. The Tiger squeezed it again, a bead of sweat forming above his eyes and dripping slowly onto the useless steel pipe. He swore, squeezing again.
The ground shook, and crashing echoes sounded as the great worm clawed its way back up its dark tunnel. The Tiger lay, squeezing the trigger with wide eyes, as the pa'h-lung burst from its lair.
Zhung screamed, and rose to ran. He tripped, cartwheeling up and down into a boggy mire. He splashed, helplessly, as the dragon slithered from its hole, hissing.
The Tiger lay, motionless and stunned for a beat, and then jumped up. His hands flew to his throwing-stars and he launched them spinning through the air towards the beast. A yelp, and the dragon's head snapped back, five black disks embedded in its neck. It roared again, and the Tiger felt the marshes shake. He looked at the dragon uncertainly.
Zhung screamed again as the pa'h-lung lunged. Its worm-like body, wreathed in glittering gold snake-skin and carried by four bird-like talons, snaked and slipped into the wet marsh. It swam through the bog, snarling with great foaming jaws, and pounced on the man.
The Tiger watched as the dragon tore Zhung in two with its fangs, and then shook his upper body like a rag-doll as he screamed, his face fixed in horrified pain. It threw him up into the night sky, and for a moment Zhung was silhouetted by the full moon, before coming down again and crashing on the dragon's antlers, which jutted like a stag's horns over his wide, grinning mouth.
The dragon gored Zhung on its antlers for a moment more, splashing warm blood out into the wet marshes, and then shook him free. It rose up, its body seemingly never-ending as the tail still slipped from the dank hole, and roared.
An open jaw as tall as the Tiger now lunged for him, with snake-fangs as long as the stolen sword at him side. The Tiger stood still, frozen in the bright lights of death, and then jumped. The snake crashed into the bog where he'd stood and slipped into the water.
A shout and Chaco disappeared, dragged suddenly into the marsh. Another and the man beside him followed suit.
The Tiger stood alone, surrounded by the writhing body of the worm, while its head - and gaping jaws - swam underneath, raging through the marshes. His mouth flapped open, and he gabbled wordlessly, falling over himself as he drew the swords on his belt. One curved, an Eastern bandit's blade, the other straight, well-honed and ancient in its heritage, the steel sword of Corbenic and the stranger's home.
He ran, wading through the boggy ground, swinging the blades wildly. They met the worm's shimmering flank and tore into the scales, ripping long strips into the snake's flesh. The Tiger screamed, dropping the swords and pawing at his eyes, thick emerald blood burning into them as it spurted from the dragon's wounds.
The tail lashed around, finally unwound from the caves beneath, and the dragon knocked the Yellow Tiger into the muddy waters. He flailed, splashing, his eyes two smoking sockets, empty and sightless, the burning blood still dripping down his yellow cheeks, undoing the white scars that he so paraded as tiger whiskers, and revealing the blood red of his cheek muscles beneath.
The pa'h-lung turned, it head surfaced and gloating over the blind bandit-lord, bobbing gently overhead. It grinned wide, its fangs still stained by the scarlet blood of the half-man and the Tiger's fellow outlaws.
It hovered, a thin pale green tongue tickling the Tiger's shoulder, making him spin and punch out wildly, and bobbed again with great whoofing snorts of hot breath that seemed to the Tiger almost like mocking laughter.
The Tiger punched out again, stumbling, as the dragon tickled his chin. He felt the forked tongue brush against his leg and he stamped, missing and tumbling into the marsh. The dragon's whoofing laughter came harder than ever somewhere above his head, unseen.
He measured his breath, steadying his nerves. The burning sensation that had shrivelled his eyes was gone now, the worm's blood having burn its way to the edges of his skull and stopped, seemingly dried up. He flailed again, but intentionally now, working his way about the boggy pool he now treaded water in, feeling the wet sludge about him.
The dragon laughter again, and the tongue lashed his face. The Tiger threw himself backwards with more force than he needed to, and felt his right foot brush against something in the waters. He waved his arms, fighting nothingness madly, feeling for it with his foot as the dragon laughter.
The dragon stopped laughing, slowly. The Tiger turned his head about, trying to listen desperately for some sign of what had made the lizard stop. Listening for a sudden rush, for fangs closing about his head, the worm having grown tired with his antics.
He heard nothing. Then...the faint rustle of a serape in the breeze. He floundered, disappearing momentarily underwater.
The stranger's voice carried across to him as his resurfaced, gulping big breaths of air.
The Tiger gulped again, his legs kicking. He'd lost the thing. He struggled, reaching down with his feet.
"Hail to you too, laowai."
The stranger smoked his cigar thoughtfully, and looked up at the worm as it bobbed its great grinning head over the bandit. It seemed surprised to see him.
"I believe you have something that belongs to me," the stranger said, calling back to the bandit in the watery puddle. He spoke calmly, and coolly, as though the worm were little more than a passerby, listening to two friends talk.
The Tiger spluttered, muddy water seeping into his nose and mouth. He coughed.
"Did Maaike fuck you?" he asked, presently. The stranger blow a lazy smoke ring and looked into the distance.
"Yes," he said, bluntly. "Sorry."
"It's no worries," the Tiger allowed, gasping. He was getting more breathless with every kick of his legs. His boot hit something. "I have to ask..."
The stranger tilted his head, listening. The moonlight cast shadows about his face as his broad-brimmed leather hat flapped gently in the breeze.
The Tiger dived, suddenly, and threw his arm back, wildly. The knight's sword spun through the air and thudded into the boggy ground by his foot.
"Is this yours?" the Tiger wondered, as the dragon roared and dived. The stranger drew the sword from the ground as the fangs closed on the Tiger's head. He threw his serape back, revealing cold armour that glinted in the moonlight.
The stranger went from standing to a run and to a jump in an instant. He swung the sword as he arced through the air, bringing it sweeping down with him as he came. The dragon yelped, its head lashed back and sending the mangled body of the Yellow Tiger flying into the air. The stranger brought the sword down, heavily, into the dragon's flank, and ran, his leather boots pounding on the worm's scaly hide as he dragged the blade up the beast' body.
The pa'h-lung shook, howling and spitting great globules of emerald poison from its open wounds as the stranger ran onwards, dragging the blade up the snake towards the head, the long open gash trailing out behind him as he ran.
The stranger felt a fleck of the green blood burn a hole in his cheek and ignored it. His serape was burning, somewhere about him, but he ignored it. Every thought gravitated to the dragon and its head.
He sprang, drawing the blade out as he went, raising it once more over his head as he came down of the worm's head.
The dragon twisted, its jaws opening below the stranger as he fell, the sightless head of the Yellow Tiger still caught between two fangs.
The stranger landed, pressing his foot to the sightless head, and stabbed down. The blade drove through the worm's silky upper gums, driving between the dripping teeth and plunging cold into the beast's brain. It snapped its jaws, and the stranger held them open, his sword in one hand and the child knife in the other, driving the closing mouth open with steel and brawn.
A howl welled up from beneath him as the worm roared its last savage roar, and every man and women of the village that was once called Death shivered as they heard it, warding themselves with the sign of reverence at the brave stranger in the shining plate armour.
The stranger slipped from the snake's jaws, pulling his blades free as he went. He stepped onto the pa'h-lung's still head, and drove the child knife into its eye. The long worm's body spasmed, and then was still.
The stranger stepped back, leaving the sword where it was, an unconscious tribute to the blacksmith's son. He cleaned his own sword carefully on the snake's scaly hide, and then ducked into the caves beneath.
The stranger looked up, narrowing his eyes in the burning orange setting sun. He nodded, blankly.
"I returned an hour back. The dragon is dead, and so are the bandits," he finished looping the stitches across his serape, and bit the thread. He gave the blacksmith another blank look.
"Is it...is it...truly..." the blacksmith fell to his knees, clutching the stranger in his arms. "You truly did it, laowai! You slew the pa'h-lung! You saved our village!"
The stranger shrugged the man off, and packed his needle and thread away into the wallet on his belt. He examined his serape. Leathers and hides torn from the remains of the bandit Yellow Tiger now hung over the serape, making it heavy and warm where once it had been light and thin. It seemed now more a misshapen cloak than a serape, and would serve the stranger well enough on his journey home. The road he was taking back to Albion would be cold indeed.
He rose, brushing the man aside as he did the cheers of the other villages as they poured out to touch his cold armour and clap him on the back. He walked through the ancient mob and chewed thoughtfully on his black cigar.
He stopped, silhouetted by the gradually setting sun.
"There's gold in the dragon caves," he said, finally, addressing no-one in particular. "I reckon its enough to see your village through at least one more summer. Don't you?"
He turned his head, as though asking the dried bones of Da'Jin where they still sat in the dusty road. He smiled a wan smile.
Then he walked out, into the sunset.
From her bed in the dirty ground of the hut, the naked girl stirred, contentedly. She felt the ground beside her, still warm from the stranger's body.
"Stay awhile, laowai," she murmured, her eyes shut, her smile dreamy and not yet awake. "Stay awhile, and we'll make love some more...and then...then maybe you'll tell me just who you are, laowai...maybe..."
But the stranger was already gone.